When Mayor Michael Bloomberg flees New York for his weekend retreats in Bermuda, his neighbors are Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, and Ross Perot, the independent candidate for president who shook up the 1992 election. They are, aptly enough, the two men who have limned the political path that he hopes to follow. Berlusconi, one of the wealthiest men in Italy, used a media empire even grander than Bloomberg’s to win power as the head of a coalition whose only goal was to elect Berlusconi. But careless pundits more often compare Bloomberg to Perot, even though the differences between the two men are glaring. Perot’s 1992 campaign represented a populist reaction to the forces unleashed by globalization.
Bloomberg’s wealth and political worldview are an expression of globalization. But first, the similarities. Both Bloomberg and Perot are fabulously wealthy, self-made men with reputations as business mavericks, who have sought to take advantage of widespread public distaste with the two major parties. Both parties, with some justification, are widely assumed to be corrupt.
It has taken President Bush six and a half years to fall to a 28 percent approval rating; the Democratic Congress has achieved a 26 percent rating after only six months in office. Angry over Iraq and immigration, only 22 percent of voters in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll said the U.S. is “headed in the right direction.” That’s the lowest response to this question since July 1992, when Perot briefly led both major-party candidates in the national presidential polls. That same throw-the-bums-out dissatisfaction, notes pollster Andy Kohut, was present in 1994, when the GOP captured the House of Representatives after nearly a half-century of Democratic control.
In 1992, Perot’s strength came from white, male swing voters, often Reagan Democrats, who found his message of economic nationalism and fiscal restraint appealing in the face of increased global competition, President George H.W. Bush’s tax increases, and revelations about Bill Clinton’s draft dodging. For all of the talk of polarization since the contested 2000 election, those swing voters have never gone away. George W. Bush’s margin of victory in 2004 came from independent-minded married women, Hispanics, and Catholics. The Republicans suffered in 2006 because Reagan Democrats and that overlapping group, the Perotistas, went strongly for the Democrats.
All this would seem to suggest fertile ground for a Bloomberg candidacy. But there is no indication that Bloomberg’s call for post-partisan, technocratic government resonates with voters. The last candidate with this message was the hapless Michael Dukakis.
Many of the major issues roiling the public today are in one way or another tied to globalization. Iraq, immigration, inequality, the influence of big money in politics, out-of-control government spending, and outsourcing are what make middle-class swing voters anxious and angry. A Ross Perot/Lou Dobbs sort of candidate could appeal to those voters, as well as to large chunks of the Republican and Democratic electorate. By contrast, the Bush/Senate immigration reform bill garners approval from only 23 percent of the public.
But from the perspective of 2007’s angry voters, Bloomberg is on the wrong side of these issues. He hasn’t spoken much about Iraq, but what he has said has been largely supportive of President Bush. He not only supports the immigration bill, but he also doesn’t see massive illegal immigration as a problem. He is the personification of inequality, of a social hierarchy in which the super-rich seem to have seceded from the rest of the country. As for out-of-control government spending, Bloomberg’s budgets have grown at twice the rate of inflation. And when it comes to outsourcing, Bloomberg built his fortune on the growth of the global economy. Rather than representing an alternative, Bloomberg incarnates the very things people are angry about.
Bloomberg argues that his wealth makes him immune to being bought. He’s right, but the problem of money corrupting politics doesn’t go away. Bloomberg merely reverses the process. He uses his fortune to buy interest groups, who can then impose their agenda on the rest of the population through him. “Money-bags Mike,” as he has been described in both New York and D.C., represents what liberals of an older vintage, and most Americans in general, have long feared—the marriage of money and power.
Here’s the satirical take of columnist Bill Press, a bread-and-butter Democrat:
A new landmark was reached for New York auction houses today as Sotheby’s reported a record bid of $500 million for the Oval Office. According to anonymous sources, the winning White House bid was placed by New York political office collector Michael Bloomberg, who also held the previous record of $155 million paid for the New York mayoral office. “I could never capture the Oval Office the old-fashioned way,” Bloomberg told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “so why not buy it?”
Does Press’s satire go too far? Consider an admiring piece on Bloomberg in the New York Times’s Week in Review section. Writer Patrick Healey approvingly lays out a scenario in which Bloomberg, although he doesn’t become president, uses his money to determine the election winner. If Bloomberg can buy enough support in key states, Healey argues, the mayor could gain the balance of electoral power. Then he could negotiate with both major parties, rewarding the one that gives him the best deal in terms of following his advice on cabinet appointments and policies. “This reform-minded disbursement of power,” says Healey, “could be guaranteed by a legally executed contract with a hefty cash bond if the eventual president reneges. (There’s nothing barring this in the Constitution.)”
The presidency for sale? Forget the Perotistas: the idea of purchasing the presidency will leave much of the public queasy, if not angry. Before his eccentricities became visible, a folksy Ross Perot connected with many American voters. We shouldn’t assume Bloomberg can make a similar connection. Perot was influential because his money enabled him to speak for voters who felt they didn’t have a voice. His campaign began as a bottom-up movement. Bloomberg has far, far more money than Perot, but his appeal is top-down. What cause does “Mayor Mike” represent other than his own advancement?