Will: Michael Bloomberg: an echo, not a choice

George F. Will

WASHINGTON – Michael Bloomberg’s epiphany about the 2016 presidential proceedings is that what is missing is a second bossy, big-government billionaire from Manhattan’s East Side – another candidate with malleable party loyalties. Bloomberg, whose net worth estimated by Forbes is US$38.6 billion (eighth on the list of richest Americans), is again exploring an independent presidential candidacy.

In 2001, he spent US$74 million to become New York’s mayor. He had been a registered Democrat but ran as a Republican to avoid a competitive primary. Re-elected in 2005, he left the GOP and in 2009 won a third term as an independent, spending US$102 million – US$174 per vote – to eke out a 50.6 percent victory against a negligible opponent. He had persuaded – not a Herculean task – the city council to alter the law, enacted and reaffirmed in two referendums, limiting mayors and city council members to two terms.

“Make no mistake about it,” Bloomberg said then, “I still think term limits are a good thing.” Intermittently.

A Bloomberg presidential run might complete a repudiation trifecta for New York mayors. In 1972, John Lindsay, after three terms in Congress representing the Silk Stocking District on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, was in his second disastrous term as mayor. He had run in 1965 on the Republican and Liberal Party lines. Defeated in the 1969 Republican primary, he won re-election on the Liberal and Fusion lines. In 1971, he sought the Democrats’ 1972 presidential nomination, winning 1.23 percent of the votes cast in primaries.

In September 2007, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani had a 20-point lead in polls for the Republican presidential nomination and a third more money than Mitt Romney and John McCain combined. He was, however, like Donald Trump, thrice married and, like Trump until his various conversions of convenience, favored abortion and gun control. Giuliani left the race Jan. 30, 2008, having spent more than US$65 million, having won one delegate (a Nevadan) and having generated one good joke: “Giuliani’s momentum-proof national polling lead, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all walk into a bar. You’re right. None of them exist.”

As mayor, Bloomberg adequately guided the city through traumatic revenue losses when the Great Recession clobbered Wall Street. He was an energetic education reformer, favoring charter schools, but he did not really try to tame rapacious government employee unions. He dislikes the Second Amendment and large servings of sugary sodas. He likes trickle-down progressivism, or what Walter Russell Mead calls “a ‘Downton Abbey’ vision” of America’s future. As mayor, Bloomberg said: “If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move [to the city], that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.” The perpetually dependent would doff their cloth caps and tug their forelocks, grateful to be taken care of.

Most “successful” independent candidates have three things in common – a vivid personality, a burning issue and a regional base. And they lose.

Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 had all three and won 39 and 46 electoral votes, respectively. In 1992, Ross Perot had a sandpapery personality and the deficit issue but he lacked a regional base, so his 18.9 percent of the popular vote won zero electoral votes.

Bloomberg is bland – agreeably so, compared to some of the others – and his issue is who he is not (the others). His base is New York, former incubator of presidents. In 1868, the state had a higher percentage of the nation’s electoral votes than California’s 55 (10.2 percent) are today. Between 1868 and 1948, New Yorkers appeared on more than half of the two major parties’ tickets, and five times won the presidency. However, Americans have not elected a president from the Northeast for 56 years (Massachusetts’ John Kennedy in 1960). It has subsequently rejected three nominees from Massachusetts (Michael Dukakis in 1988, John Kerry in 2004, Romney in 2012). This year’s political cafeteria might serve up four Northeasterners – Bloomberg, Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire, would be preferable as president to Clinton, who has forfeited the nation’s trust. And to Sanders, who has never run anything larger than the Burlington, Vermont, mayor’s office. And to Trump, whose comprehensive ignorance and boundless confidence demonstrate that he does not know what it is to know things.

Conservatives, however, remembering Barry Goldwater’s 1964 promise of “A choice, not an echo,” would rightly regard a contest featuring Bloomberg, Trump and Clinton/Sanders as three echoes and no palatable choice.

George Will’s email address is [email protected] © 2016, Washington Post Writers Group