Monday, June 25, 2007

Bloomberg for President, And Why Not?

Washington Post Columnist David Broder's Op-Ed piece yesterday is blogworthy, at least in my opinion as a seasoned blogist, and that's the only one that matters around here, which is the beauty of blogging, isn't it? So, anyway, it starts out like this:

Ready for Bloomberg?
By David S. Broder
Sunday, June 24, 2007; Page B07

Six months ago, when I began hearing rumors of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's possible interest in an independent presidential campaign in 2008, I went to see the mayor at his City Hall office.

He told me what he has said repeatedly ever since -- that his intention was to finish his second term in 2009 as "the best mayor this city has ever had" and then devote himself to philanthropy and good works. He then steered the conversation to city issues and explained what he was trying to do on housing, transportation and social services -- an impressive agenda.

I barely knew him, and I took him at his word about the presidency.
Okay, now that Broder has established Bloomberg's cover story, he tosses a bit of investigative journalism our way:

When I talked the next day to Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, the man who had steered the billionaire communications-company mogul to victory in city campaigns, I got a rather different story.

Sheekey drew a picture of a country ready and willing to consider electing a president without a party label. He cited the success of independent candidates for governor in Maine and Minnesota, and most of all, he talked about what Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing in California -- governing as a "post-partisan" leader of that mega-state and winning praise for doing so.

Sheekey cited to me the statistics of voter registrations in California, where "decline-to-state" independents are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. It was evident that he was closely monitoring political developments far from New York and that his tongue was hanging out in eagerness to test his political prowess in a national race.
And now, Broder brings us up to date with his own analysis:

It now looks more and more as if he will have a chance. In what appears to have been a carefully orchestrated series of events, Bloomberg dominated the political news last week. First, he turned up on the cover of Time magazine along with Schwarzenegger. A flattering article suggested that the two men embodied the pragmatic, problem-solving approach that Washington conspicuously lacks in these final dispiriting months of the Bush presidency.

Then Bloomberg joined Schwarzenegger for appearances in California at which they lashed the failure of the two parties in Washington to meet the nation's needs. Bloomberg said, "We continue to struggle from big problem to big problem with Band-Aids . . . and nobody is really ready to stand up and make the tough decisions." Schwarzenegger, who is ineligible to run for president because he is not a natural-born citizen, told reporters that Bloomberg would make those tough calls if he were in the White House.

And then Bloomberg announced that he has changed his own registration from Republican to independent.

Bloomberg still insists that he has no plans to run for president, unless everyone else in America declines. But in almost every respect, the political environment for such a candidacy has improved in recent months. True, a surfeit of New Yorkers already crowd the contest. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior senator from New York, leads the Democratic field, and Rudolph Giuliani, Bloomberg's predecessor as mayor, sits atop the Republican polls. Bloomberg, a Democrat for most of his life, has been friendly with the Clintons in New York, and Giuliani gave Bloomberg a vital endorsement when he switched to the GOP in 2001 to run for mayor.

Early polls show that Bloomberg would start out well behind Clinton and Giuliani in a three-way race. Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for Bloomberg in the picture. Polls consistently show that large numbers of Americans -- close to a majority -- are unwilling to consider Clinton for president, and Giuliani is painful medicine for many Republicans to swallow.

More than that, there is a palpable hunger among the public for someone who will attack the problems facing the country -- the war in Iraq, immigration, energy, health care -- and not worry about the politics.

Can Bloomberg satisfy that hunger? He has joked that "they're never going to vote for a 5-foot-6-inch Jewish guy from New York," who supports abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. But if he runs, he is not just a nuisance or a distraction. Unlike Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, the last three significant independents to run, none of whom had spent a day in elective office, Bloomberg has solid governing experience and a commendable record of innovation and accomplishment in New York.

He has the personal wealth to finance a campaign and people on his staff eager to run one. If he decides to go, he would add to the mix -- not distort or diminish it.
And let's be clear here, this isn't breaking news, although it is a recent story, and Broder's analysis sits well with me.

Growing up in New York City, I was for many years a knee-jerk Democrat, voting for anyone that my party put up for office. Which is not to say that I was entirely unsympathetic to the good old liberal Republicans of New York, such as Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor who went on to be appointed to the Vice-Presidency by Gerald Ford, who had succeeded to the Presidency following Richard Nixon's resignation after being appointed to the Vice-Presidency following Spiro Agnew's resignation, and Jacob Javits, the longtime United States Senator, not to mention John V. Lindsay, the New York City Mayor who eventually left the Republican party, winning his last election on the Liberal Party line, and later switching to the Democratic party. The Liberal Party in New York was formed expressly to provide a vehicle for voters who could not stomach the thought of voting for a Republican to vote for a Republican without actually voting for a Republican (technically, at least).

So, while the liberal wing of the Republican Party has generally been considered to have met its demise during the Reagan years, George H. W. Bush's conversion to conservatism being the coup de grâce, this is not without its exaggerations, as we appear to be witnessing the return of the repressed with the ascendancy of Rudy Giuliani as the leading Republican presidential contender, with the high popularity of the factory reconditioned governoratoreador, Arnold Schwarzenegger on the west coast, and of course with Bloomberg himself, who crossed over from the Democratic Party so that he could ride Giuliani's 9/11 coattails into Gracie Mansion (where he chooses not to reside).

While New York City was mostly Democratic, the Long Island and Westchester suburbs leaned more to the Republican side, and the rest of New York State also tended to favor the Republicans, with some exceptions such as Tompkins County, home of the city of Ithaca and Cornell University, a Democratic island in a Republican sea.

As for what was going on in New Jersey, well, that was a bit of a mystery, and I won't go into the geography, except to note that it is certainly a blue state these days. But the political tradition in much of the state, in contrast to the heavy partisanship of New York, is largely one of independent politics. Of course, there are still functioning political parties, and people register with them to vote in the primaries, but party loyalty is relatively weak in contrast to New York, there are few if any barriers to voting across party lines, and people are more concerned with the individual candidates than their affiliations.

Now, I'm not saying that this is a better approach. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued quite convincingly that party politics was eminently rational, and that independent voting goes hand-in-hand with the irrationality of image politics, which means voting on appearance and personality, rather than on issues and ideologies. But having been a resident of New Jersey for over a decade and a half, I've been bitten by the independent bug myself. Not that I have gone so far as to vote for a Republican yet, but now I really have to think about it before I make up my mind.

By the way, it's a reflection of the prevailing political leanings in academia that, after telling colleagues that I was no longer going to automatically vote for Democrats, and that in the wake of 9/11 I felt myself to be more conservative than before, that some have assumed that I'm now a Republican!

Anyway, political parties once served as media, that is, organizations that provided channels of communication, between citizens and government. Their power was rooted in local politics, which formed the base upon which state and federal politics were built. But the electronic media, especially television, short-circuited political parties, providing an alternate medium for candidates to communicate directly to voters, and officials to citizens. The internet now has facilitated communication back from voters and citizens to the politicians and government, making parties all but irrelevant.

So, political parties have lost a significant portion of their functionality, but remain in place as vestiges, appendices prone to infection. Over and over and over again, the race is between the Democrat and the Republican who claim to be polar opposites but offer little in the way of real alternatives. And Americans by and large won't vote for third party candidates unless they are totally fed up, or convinced that there's a chance that their vote won't be thrown away.

So, can Bloomberg convince voters that a vote for him would be meaningful? That would be tough, but what some pundits are saying is that an independent Bloomberg/Schwarzenegger ticket that carried New York and California could gain enough electoral votes to keep the other two candidates from gaining a majority in the electoral college, opening the door to making a deal for a coalition government.

Now that would be interesting! Having an independent presence in a new government would serve as a check and balance on politics and usual, putting increased emphasis on ideas and innovation. More so, if enough people believe in the viability of such a limited scenario, it might boost the polls enough to transform the independent candidacy into a viable contender to take it all.

President Bloomberg? . . . It could happen . . .

Of course, the down side would be that the third party candidacy would just throw the election to a conservative Republican candidate. And you can bet that's what the Democrats will be screaming, should this come to pass.

But I think we know that our political system doesn't seem to be providing us with the best possible candidates for high office, by any means. Two-party politics is the next worst thing to one-party politics, and if it has to be two-party politics, a century and a half without a major shakeup is enough. We need some kind of political realignment to throw off this stagnation, and better yet, a genuine, viable three or more party system--the more the merrier.

I think we need to shake things up a bit. I say this with the caveat that shaking things up often has bad results. The resignation of Agnew, the near-impeachment and resignation of Nixon, the appointed presidency of Ford and Rockefeller, the impeachment of Clinton, and the debacle of election year 2000, all left us more shaken than the system, it is true.

But Bloomberg for President on an Independent ticker is hardly a radical move. Quite the opposite, it might make for greater political stability in the long run. Or at least, for a more interesting election year. Why not?

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