US DEMOCRATIC PRIMARIES

Michael Bloomberg — shiny new pebble or fool’s gold?

By J Brooks Spector 11 November 2019

US President Donald J. Trump (Photo: Michael Reynolds/ EPA) / Billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Photo: Ian Langsdon/EPA)

Suddenly, the Democratic Party’s competition for the presidential nomination is taking an unexpected turn as billionaire former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg is poised to enter the race as well. Is this a real shake-up or a flash in the pan?

Let’s assume that the well-known, highly regarded brain science researcher, Dr Victor Frankenstein (Mary Shelley’s old friend, in case you were wondering), has been called to the Democratic National Committee to offer some advice on identifying and acting upon the right attributes for a popular, effective candidate for the 2020 presidential race. The challenge for Dr Frankenstein — and what everyone he is consulting with continues to worry about — is that there really are three different situations where a candidate must be successful.

First, of course, there is the challenge of winning a sufficient number of primaries and caucuses that a candidate gains a winning majority of the delegates for the national nominating convention that comes up in the American summer, 2020.

Then there is the actual general election itself. There, to be the winning candidate, they must capture a majority of those seemingly mysterious electoral votes. Think of this contest as really a set of 50 individual elections, state by state. If you win a state by any margin, you get the entire electoral weight of that state, roughly equal to that state’s share of the total national population. Gain a majority of those electoral votes and you win the whole ball of wax.

But then, of course, winning is just the start. Think of the Robert Redford character in the film, The Candidate, who, after winning his election in an upset, turns to his aide and asks what should he do now? Thus there is the huge challenge of becoming an actual, successful president, despite all the obstacles, all the chaos, and all the unexpected events that will conspire to destroy a presidency. Any presidency. Success here is what the whole game is about, after all, and it is not easy.

So, let’s return to Dr Frankenstein and the people with whom he is consulting, as they put together the perfect candidate. What would be special, unique in a new candidate, say, someone like a Michael Bloomberg? (Besides his political experience and vast business success, he has degrees from Johns Hopkins University and Harvard — an MBA — and nearly $60-billion in personal assets, based on his creation of Bloomberg PLC, the business data and media giant.)

So, what about a really, really mega-rich guy who made all of his money the old fashioned way, like, say, Mike Bloomberg? But already in the race are two other rich folks, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer.

So, how about someone with real, hands-on political experience as a mayor? Well, Cory Booker is now a senator, but he was previously the mayor of the troubled city of Newark in New Jersey. And there is Pete Buttigieg. He is the current mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Still, Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City thrice.

Okay, so how about someone with decades and decades of high-level economic and financial management? Well, okay, here maybe it is not a perfect fit, but there is already the example of Elizabeth Warren. She made her legal and governmental reputation as a specialist on bankruptcy law and she became the key proponent of the legislation that created the new federal financial oversight agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and then served as its first leader. And, of course, Bernie Sanders has been grappling with the question of the nation’s growing wealth gap and a growing concentration of economic power, probably since he was a high school student. Ah, oh yes, Michael Bloomberg has done a bit of both finance and management in his day.

So, how about the idea of age and experience more generally, with the kind of sagacity that supposedly comes from being a 70+ early, early baby boomer — or someone around from just a bit before that chronological marker? Oh, right, there they are already as well — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and, again, Elizabeth Warren, all of whom have already celebrated their seventieth birthdays.

Nevertheless, it now seems increasingly clear, with movement on filing the documentation needed to have his name on the Democratic primary ballot in Alabama, that Michael Bloomberg has given up on his long-running “will he or won’t he” tease. Instead, he has decided he has the right parts and pieces to be a candidate and president, regardless of what Dr Frankenstein may have told his people.

His strategy now appears to be to pass on the first four caucus and primary votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, and, instead, move forward with enormous strength (and success) in Super Tuesday on 3 March 2020, when there are 15 primaries. On that day, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Democrats Abroad, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia — will all hold their presidential primaries simultaneously. A big day in that set of primaries would — theoretically — generate great momentum towards wrapping up many more primary wins in other states with big populations and big delegate counts like New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. And then the victory parade at the nominating convention.

The late timing of our entry means that many candidates already have a big head start in the four early states, where they’ve spent months and months campaigning and spending money,” says Bloomberg adviser Howard Wolfson. “We have enormous respect for the Democratic primary process and many friends in those states, but our plan is to run a broad-based, national campaign… He didn’t just wake up and say, ‘Oh my God, the socialists are going to be running the country; I better run for president.’ He woke up and said, ‘Oh my God, Donald Trump is going to be re-elected; I better run for president.’ ”

Contrary to the idea, as noted above — that there is already a candidate or candidates who offer much of what Bloomberg could conceivably represent to voters, as well as the interesting, complex idea of an ultra-rich, 77-year-old, Manhattan-based, slightly plump, Jewish financial genius as the chosen one, this in an age when the national gorge seems to be rising against the ultra-wealthy — the core of Bloomberg’s electability argument must lie elsewhere.

Setting the stage for this theory, The Washington Post argued, “Even for a party accustomed to an anxious donor and political class — a group of second-guessers that Obama adviser David Plouffe famously called the ‘bed wetters’ — billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s likely entry into the Democratic presidential primary has supercharged a debate over whether the party has the right candidates, whether the time for entries has passed, and whether yet other candidates could raise the mountain of cash needed for a credible campaign.

Bloomberg’s decision, fuelled by his dissatisfaction with the race’s leading moderate, former vice president Joe Biden, and worries about the rise of liberal leader Elizabeth Warren, injected renewed volatility into the primary race just three months before voting begins with the Iowa caucuses.”

The paper went on to say, “ ‘It’s a mix in all these cases of three things: nervousness about Warren as a general election candidate, nervousness about Biden as a primary candidate… and fundamental nervousness about Trump and somehow the party will blow the race,’ said the Democratic consultant David Axelrod. ‘That’s really a lot of what’s motivating donors and activists.’

Bloomberg’s sudden interest was driven by looming deadlines to file paperwork to get on statewide ballots. The calendar also will force the hand of any other potential entrants, a group that must have either wealth or an existing political network to replicate candidacies that in some cases have been hustling for support for nearly a year.”

The core for the new man’s argument rests on several pillars. First and foremost, Bloomberg’s natural political home is as a moderate, someone who could hold the Democratic coalition together (at least for the most part) as well as being attractive to many independent voters and a significant — and growing — number of old-style moderate Republicans increasingly repulsed by the Trump administration’s prevarications, missteps, and dangerous amateurishness. Over the years, he has, in fact, changed his party registration from Democrat to Republican to independent and back to Democrat.

Second, on a number of key issues espoused by left-wing/progressive Democratic activists, such as active measures combating climate change, gun control advocacy and stronger tobacco regulation, Bloomberg has been active both inside and outside government for years. Such advocacy and effort should appeal to party activists and voters more generally, and should be attractive to broad swathes of voters (including all those increasingly former Republicans in the suburbs), regardless of party, angered by governmental inaction.

(There are also some political positions from his past that might hurt him too, including his defence of stop-and-frisk policing that civil rights groups have denounced as racist; there have been sexual harassment cases at his company that could prove a liability in the #MeToo era; and he has criticised public employee labour unions, despite their being a key Democratic constituency. Moreover, Bloomberg made his money selling technology to those rapacious Wall Street banks, and he has criticised the Dodd-Frank regulatory framework enacted into law by Democrats under President Barack Obama.)

Third, it is true that the personal circumstances of Bloomberg as a very (really) rich man run counter to the leftwing populist vision of both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (and many Democratic voters more generally) as proponents of wealth taxes and other redistributionist measures.

In response, Bloomberg’s arguments could well include the obvious fact he made his wealth the old-fashioned way — through hard work, insight, innovation, imagination, and a bit of luck. After losing a senior perch in the once-grand investment banking firm of Solomon Brothers, he took his money and built a financial information services empire that now delivers an endless stream of financial market data, 24/7, relied upon by hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of users globally. In addition, there is now also the more general reporting from Bloomberg’s company, relied upon by newspapers, news services, and broadcast and electronic media around the world.

A further argument Bloomberg will be able to make is that his prime goal has not simply been a mindless effort to amass an ever-growing horde of wealth. Through a network of foundations and other philanthropic vehicles, big chunks of his money have supported efforts in public policy areas like gun control and climate change, as well as for the support of the arts — as any watcher of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts globally, among others, can attest to — plus the aggressive defence of media freedom globally. In addition, he has supported Democratic candidates at local and state levels. Most recently this came as part of the successful bid by Democrats to reclaim the Virginia state legislature.

Just by the way, unlike a certain incumbent president, there has been no taint of scandal with Bloomberg’s philanthropic efforts. This stands in sharp contrast to the just-settled court action over Donald Trump’s collecting money for veterans’ welfare, and then skimming that collection plate for millions for his presidential campaign instead.

Moreover, Bloomberg has become a vocal supporter of the Warren Buffett principle of giving away a major chunk of his personal wealth before he dies, rather than creating a giant horde for trust fund babies and the never-ending squabbles among the heirs.

Still, his opponents in primary races will inevitably argue — as Bernie Sanders did over the weekend — that, at the core, Bloomberg is just another ultra-rich man attempting to use the political process to protect his wealth — and those of his cronies and economic and social class — from the righteous, rising tide of demands to reverse economic inequality in America. This argument, at least, gains some street cred with the story that following the public awareness he was about to enter the presidential race, when he went out to supper, the other diners in the restaurant gave him a round of applause.

Well, they would have done so at the kind of places zillionaires frequent in midtown Manhattan. But would he have been so well received in a Chick-a-Fil in peri-urban Mississippi or at a truck stop on the open highway in one of the Great Plains states?

Now it seems we will get to find out if a super-rich, financial wizard, 77-year-old, Jewish, New York City ex-mayor with a sardonic turn of phrase can find the well-hidden moderate core in today’s American political universe — and follow it all the way to the White House. DM

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