26 January 2016

Don’t write off the idea of President Bloomberg


You know the political system is in a pinch when the great hope of moderate America is a 73 year old whose credits include the TV movie A Muppets Christmas. That might be an absurd way of framing it yet here we are. The pinch is real and we are now only waiting for former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to decide if he wants to stand as an independent in this year’s presidential election.

Normally, the news of a billionaire (in fact, the world’s thirteenth wealthiest) entering a presidential race would be a damning statement about the inequality of US politics. The reality is that the ‘government of the people, by the people’ has always really been a government of the people by an immensely rich few. From Jefferson to Kennedy, Washington to Bushes 1 and 2, wealth has been an established fact of the presidency, which is why Bernie Sanders overstated it somewhat when he declared this weekend that ‘the American people do not want to see our nation move toward an oligarchy, where billionaires control the political process.’ The wealthy have always controlled the process, though it is still surprising that Bloomberg is reportedly willing to spend a billion dollars to fund his run. The sum might be a fraction of Bloomberg’s forty plus billion fortune but its size reflects how his greatest obstacle will initially be name recognition. Beyond that, the billion is a great indicator of how real his chances might be in a race currently fragmented on both the left and the right.

Conventional wisdom has it that elections are won from the centre yet this election has thus far witnessed candidates being forced from that ground. Hillary Clinton struggles to maintain her moderate composure in a fight increasingly dominated by the leftward force of Sanders. On the Republican side, it’s the moderate candidates that have fared least well, with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio unable to counter the parody mobster appeal of Donald Trump and faux-cowboy styling of Ted Cruz.

Is there room for Bloomberg to take the centre? At the moment the space is there for a third candidate. The bigger question is what happens in six months time once the nominations are won and the successful candidates rush to regain the centre ground. It then becomes a matter of asking not how much room there is in the centre but for how long a third candidate could withstand the squeeze.

Currently, the polling suggests that Hillary Clinton has an average advantage of 2.7% over Trump in national polls but such figures are hardly telling this far out. Trump’s success has been achieved by motivating the Republican base with his brand of pastiche Republicanism culminating in xenophobic rhetoric, ad hominem attacks, and streetwise charm. The rhetoric is sure to disappear once the nomination is won. It happens every time. If candidates don’t broaden their appeal going into the main election, moderate America will be extremely likely to stay at home on election day

It is this logic that might (and I think should) encourage Bloomberg to run for the presidency, especially when you consider that in 2015, an average of 44% of Americans identified themselves as independents, compared to 29% Democrat and 26% Republican. (The numbers are 45% and 44% if independents are grouped according to their bias.) As a centrist candidate, himself leaning somewhat to the right (he split from the Republican party in 2007), Bloomberg would offer the American electorate something they’ve not seen since 1992 when Ross Perot (another billionaire) launched an independent campaign which was based upon broadly centrist policies and which attracted nearly 19% of the vote. That modest result perhaps belies the yet untested strength of America’s soft centre. Though Perot defied critics and offered a hint that there might be room in the American system for a third party, his modest polling perhaps reflected his less than moderate character. With the impish 1950s charm of a stock character from a Tex Avery cartoon, Perot was physically something of an oddity and his strong Texan drawl made him easily lampooned on the late nights. Trivial points, you might say, but these things matter.

Really, the example we should look to is 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt won 88 electoral votes under the banner of his Progressive Party. By standards of the modern political right, Roosevelt’s campaign was almost socialist in its ambitions for a National Health Service, control of political lobbyists, minimum wage laws, and an eight-hour working day. Yet his break with the GOP was not dissimilar to what we witness today with Republican moderates struggling against the alligator rodeo being run by the Tea Party and its friends. Roosevelt wanted the party to embrace the moderate progressive future and to reject unfettered capitalism and the politics of the right’s deep conservatism. Then, as now, it was a powerful message and he might have done better had he stood alone for the presidency. The Progressive Party attempts to push its way into local politics weakened Roosevelt meaning he faced a challenge quite unlike the one Bloomberg faces. Roosevelt sought to save the GOP but Bloomberg can claim that he wants to save the nation in an environment much more conducive to outside-the-box (or, at least, outside the Beltway) thinking. He needs to present himself as a presidential figure picking up the standard of pragmatic centrist America and carry it forward as the only candidate offering to save the nation from a lurch into an ideological swamp.

He should certainly be capable of making that pitch. Unlike Trump, who inherited wealth, Bloomberg has a proper claim to be self-made. His fortune vastly eclipses that of Trump and though it seems petty to argue which billionaire has been more successful, Bloomberg’s wealth will neutralise the potency of Trump’s deal-making rhetoric. He also brings a record in political office and, though opinions about that will be as divided as opinions always are, experience and trust are valuable assets. In that respect, he also has a ready answer to claims that Clinton is the only candidate previously tested in government.

At the moment, rumours suggest that Hillary holds the key to Bloomberg’s decision. If she wins the nomination, Bloomberg will be less inclined to run. That logic doesn’t necessarily hold up. Even should she win the nomination, Hillary remains toxic to many outside the Democrat base (and a few within). Her polling among moderates has been in decline meaning that Bloomberg might not have to fight hard to win the support of many left-leaning independents.

If Cruz and Sanders emerge as the nominees, they would leave the centre ground vacant for Bloomberg. With Cruz and Clinton the gap narrows on the left but remains fairly cavernous on the right where Cruz would find it impossible to convince moderates that he is anything other than the ultra conservative constitutionalist. That’s why the real challenge Bloomberg faces comes from Trump should he win the Republican nomination. Trump against Bloomberg makes for a tantalising battle because Trump’s move back to the centre ground will be the defining movement of the presidential election.

That might sound counter intuitive if you’ve read the anti-Trump headlines over the past few months but positioning Donald Trump as a centrist candidate makes much more sense than his erstwhile position as a rightwing firebrand. Trump has offered very little in the way of clear policies. He wants to radically reform the American tax system, provide some degree of protectionism for American trade, and he talks tough on foreign policy. Yet details are sparse and often change by the day, hour, or sentence. His immigration rhetoric is calculated but as thin as the paper on which the subsequent headlines are written. In the same breath as he insults Mexicans, he does his best to praise Mexicans. The same with the Chinese, who earn more praise than they do scorn. He grabbed headlines with his anti-Muslim travel ban but Trump’s willingness to ‘say it as he sees it’ has an appeal that spans the traditional political divides. This perhaps explains why some polling in the past two months suggests that the candidate leading among moderate voters is Donald Trump.

Bloomberg should focus on Trump’s attempts to be all things to all men. The Donald has previously been affiliated with the Democrats, the Reform Party, as well as identified himself as independent. He has expressed liberal opinions in the past and he espouses Republican values in the same contrived way that he tries to convince people that he’s a Christian.

It’s worth settling on this question of Trump’s religion because it really explains the size of Bloomberg’s challenge but also his possible strategy. Unless Trump really is hiding his spiritual side, it makes more sense to describe him as an old-fashioned secular businessman. He claims his religion is a private matter but the advantage of refusing to talk about your religion is that you don’t even have to have a religion to then not talk about. And not talking about religion is something Trump does extremely well. He claims that he’s a Presbyterian and that his favourite book is the Bible. Yet he never quotes scripture and when he does, saying ‘two Corinthians’ instead of the normal ‘second Corinthians’, it suggests his exposure to the vernacular of America’s Protestantism is limited.

That Trump shamelessly adapts to different audiences is less surprising than the fact that other Republicans candidates have failed to attack this strategic weakness. The only explanation is that they too are guilty to greater or lesser extents of pandering to the same base.

Bloomberg is uniquely positioned and it shouldn’t take anything like a billion dollars to undermine Trump’s credibility. If he can expose the mercury in Trump’s soul then the ex-Mayor of New York might well take down the self-proclaimed king of New York real estate.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.