Bloomberg Could Win, but Could He Govern?In surveying the field of current and potential Presidential candidates, one thing has becomes reasonably clear to me: were he to run, Michael Bloomberg has the best chance of any independent candidate in memory to win the White House. Through use of new technique that I only began work with in the final weeks of the 2004 campaign, and which ultimately proved decisive in describing key dynamics of the final outcome, I have come to believe the strength of Bloomberg's potential connection with people who identify primarily with the psycho-spiritual mindset that I describe as “the American collective” could prove extraordinary over the next 12 months. But the larger issue raised in my examination of the possible dynamics of a Bloomberg Presidency is this: even if he can win, could he successfully govern?
In brief, there are at least three candidates who have a good chance in my opinion of connecting strongly in November with voters who primarily identify with this “American collective”. The “American collective” voting bloc, as I am calling it, includes self-described independents, voters who have only weak associations with one of the two respective political parties, and Americans who are largely apolitical, but still respond to the imagery and archetypal themes that are most often thought of embodiments of our national character. To clarify, this block would not typically include committed liberals, progressives, conservatives or neo-conservatives, or indeed anyone who strongly identifies with an entrenched economic or ideological viewpoint. Let me also clarify that the phenomenon that I am describing is specifically concerned with likely voter response in October-November 2008 – and may well have little impact on these candidates chances to first win their party's nomination. Primary strength is a notoriously insular indicator – as Joseph Lieberman's 2006 primary defeat, and then eventual re-election, should demonstrate. The three candidates that I have so far identified as having the best potential for a powerful connection with this crucial block of swing voters in November are: John McCain, John Edwards, and Michael Bloomberg. My research continues in this regard, and I am not prepared to describe this list as “definitive” at this moment in time. But of these three candidates, Bloomberg is the only one who appears to own a ticket into the November election, should he choose to use it.
Prospects for a Bloomberg Presidency
Turning specifically to the likely prospects for a Bloomberg presidency, my guess is that this battle-tested CEO and Mayor would have his hands full in the Oval Office. For all intents and purposes, he would be the first President since John Adams to attempt to govern primarily in the national interest, and not as the de-facto head of a political party. Let's review a bit of history as prologue. Both George Washington and John Adams, although nominally members of the Federalist bloc in the early republic, viewed the responsibilities of a President as including a need to govern in the national interest – in essence, to be above party. While Thomas Jefferson's election as President is often heralded by historians as “The Revolution of 1801”, as Joseph Ellis and David McCullough point out, it is Alexander Hamilton, the de-facto head of the Federalists, who is most responsible for undermining Adams' chances for re-election, and unwittingly setting that revolution in motion. Hamilton did this through publishing a disparaging letter in the last weeks before voting began, in response to Adams' courageous, and decidedly independent, decision to reach a final peace accord with France – rather than cynically fanning the flames of war to mollify the Federalists' passions. Adams's ideological and political estrangement from his cabinet, comprised of mostly Washington appointees now loyal to Hamilton, became so pronounced during his Administration that, two hundred years before Hillary Clinton, he found it necessary to elevate his beloved Abigail to the role of chief Presidential advisor. With Adams' defeat at Hamilton's hand, not to mention the three-fifths cause of the United States Constitution (which gave what posterity is right to consider undue influence to the slave holding states) Jefferson is elected to the White House. With his election, the American President becomes not only the leader of the nation, but also the head of a political party. This distinction remains to this day.
The parallels between Adams' situation and a potential Bloomberg Presidency, while not exact, should be obvious. Should he win, Bloomberg would arrive in Washington with few, if any, “independent” legislators loyal to his Administration. Given the inescapably political nature of governing in America, and the likely resentment that partisans in both parties will carry against a perceived “interloper”, Bloomberg is apt to find himself very much a man alone. He may initially enjoy the support of former Senators like Sam Nunn and Chuck Hagel – but these men are no longer in the game, so to speak, and hence will convey little legislative weight.
If the pure political dynamics weren't enough to give pause, consider the potential ideological challenge. Given Bloomberg's passionate embrace of the issue of handgun control, for instance, he is likely to be as hated by the NRA and the paranoid right as was Bill Clinton. And once that hatred has a focus, we all know how these obsessions play out. Remember Whitewater, Paula Jones, etc? One assumes that Bloomberg has few, if any, skeletons left in his closet – but in an America in which nearly 40% of respondents continue to tell pollsters that Saddam was involved with 9/11, while another segment of the electorate insist that Bush and Cheney were actively involved in the plot (unfortunately, I've never seen polling numbers on this group) – actual skeletons may be unnecessary!
There are also strong suggestions that the next American president, whoever he or she is, could face a daunting economic equation. That equation could include: a severe recession and new round of job layoffs and corporate outsourcing – and a corresponding shrinkage in consumer demand, coupled to an epidemic of American personal and mortgage indebtedness. The likely outcome of such a toxic combination would be, at least in my opinion, a devastating real estate and stock market implosion. I certainly hope that I am wrong – and that this dire scenario can be averted through prescient government intervention. This is hardly the time, I would argue, for laissez faire economic fantasies.
If elected, and faced with this scenario, I am confident that John Edwards (or indeed Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton) would steal more than a few pages from the FDR playbook. We can debate whether the New Deal allowed America to emerge from the Great Depression, or simply survive as a free-market democracy, given the tides of economic and political authoritarianism that were sweeping the planet – but emerge and survive we did. In contrast, one wonders whether any GOP President wed to a supply side, non-interventionist ideology, would produce results any better than did Herbert Hoover when faced with this doomsday economic scenario. Bloomberg's approach to an American economic meltdown is uncertain. But as a self-made billionaire, and successful Mayor of a city that many of us once viewed as ungovernable, Bloomberg strikes me as likely to bring a pragmatic, anything that works, philosophy to the White House. As Allan J. Lichtman reminds us(1), Franklin Roosevelt was anything but a fan of reckless deficit spending, or a slave to anyone's economic theory. Thus, it could be that Bloomberg's likely approach would prove much closer to Roosevelt's actual strategy in the Great Depression than the legend that eventually coalesced around FDR would have us believe.
Another challenge that Bloomberg faces in running, and then successfully governing, as an independent is to find common ground with self-declared independents, some of which comprise a group that I am describing as “the Lou Dobbs voter”. Dobbs has become the titular head of the born-again ”independent” movement. Yet an examination of Bloomberg's literature (from his website) paints him as a strong defender of Free Trade; on immigration, as a big city mayor, he has supported the sanctuary city concept, and the comprehensive approach to worker normalization. These are positions that appear diametrically opposed to this voter's point of view.
On trade, Bloomberg's literature emphasizes re-training initiatives – but in the past, when offered by other candidates, these initiatives have amounted to little more than empty rhetoric. Bloomberg's best chance to win over both working poor and middle class Americans fearful about the impact of globalization might lie in emphasizing a credible, fleshed-out initiative that would offer every displaced worker a meaningful, real-world opportunity to acquire the skills they will need to better compete in a global marketplace – and then make it a centerpiece of his legislative agenda during his first 100 days. In my opinion, such a program must go far beyond the meager $3,000 benefit that President Bush twice proposed, and then shamefully abandoned. And make no mistake, this prototypical Dobbs voter's concerns about immigration and the ever-worsening plight of the middle class ultimately go hand in hand.
On immigration, he could borrow a page from Arizona's new enforcement initiative, which dramatically increases the penalties for employers who routinely hire undocumented workers – while still advocating for a compassionate, comprehensive solution that the average American believes has at least a reasonable chance of stemming the tide of future undocumented workers, better securing our borders against terrorist infiltration, and ultimately, reestablishing the rule of law. My sense is that most Americans obey the rule of law – not because they see a policeman on every corner, but more out of a sense of shared civic responsibility. If Bloomberg's aim in running for President as an Independent is greater than mere political opportunism and ambition – and is, in fact, a desire to re-emphasize that shared sense of responsibility and communal destiny – then he needs to fashion his appeal around the absolute necessity of the rule of law. If we have immigration laws, then they should be enforced; or if we have little plan or ability to do so, then they should be repealed or modified. But as it is, the devastating message that is sent via this issue to blue and white collar Americans is that our politicians consider some laws as ultimately optional. But which ones are optional? And does this determination revolve around purely political considerations? Talk about a slippery slope…
Even more than this, however, if Bloomberg doesn't command the loyalty of self-described independents, how can he possibly govern? If Bloomberg is likely to have few consistent friends within the Beltway, he desperately needs friends outside of the Beltway – the kind that will not be afraid to tell their Congressman or Senator to shape up or prepare to ship out in the next election, and mean it.
What is Presidential Leadership?
As I've written previously for Human Potential Left, the next fifteen years are likely to be tumultuous. There are ugly storm clouds just about everywhere we turn – over the economy, over the international scene, even over our ability to remain united as a single people, as Americans. On November 3rd, 2004, in the cafes and restaurants of New York and San Francisco, Americans were openly discussing secession. If you think I'm exaggerating, NBC commentator (and former executive producer of The West Wing) Lawrence O'Donnell noted the very same thing on The McLaughlin Group the following weekend. And were Roe v. Wade to be repealed, and this nation be divided even further over the issue of reproductive rights…
Pollsters tell us there is growing voter dissatisfaction with both political parties. They tell us that a plurality of Americans today describe themselves as Independents. Even within the two principal parties, there is a dawning realization that the partisan divide has grown too wide. In truth, this divide is nothing new in our history. As Joseph Ellis relates (in Founding Brothers), both Jefferson and Madison had somehow convinced themselves that John Adams, of all people, was prepared to sell-out the American Revolution to British interests. Jefferson would later admit that Adams was indeed right about the need to distrust The Directorate, and about the course the French Revolution had taken. But hindsight is always 20-20.
Similarly, the dispute over the final resolution of the slavery question in the 1850s was another period of intense ideological division. We all remember what was required to seal that breach. George W. Bush cannot be said to have created our current divide, but he and his advisors, most notably Karl Rove, are absolutely responsible for recklessly enlarging the breath and intensity of it.
The more that I delve into the fabric of the Founding era, the more that I find myself troubled by an uncomfortable narrative inconsistency. As a liberal, I feel as if my sympathies in the great party wars of the early republic should lie with Jefferson, Madison, and the Democratic-Republicans. And yet they don't. They instead rest with Washington, Adams, and John Marshall's more moderate brand of Federalism; and, in particular, with Washington and Adams' antiquated notion of Presidential leadership. There's something about the idea of a President who is above party that still resonates. John Adams could have used the Quasi-War to win re-election, but he instead chose to act in the national interest. For all the lofty invective hurled by modern commentators at Adams for signing the Alien and Sedition acts (at Abigail's urging, Joseph Ellis relates (2)), at a moment when Vice-President Jefferson was literally paying a scandalmonger to print rumors about his boss, and possibly even engaged in borderline treasonous negotiations with the French Ambassador (according to David McCullough (3)), I conclude that his critics wildly miss the mark. Adams kept his head, and his nation out of war. It may have cost him his Presidency, but as Dubya's Iraq debacle should make self-evident, winning re-election by fanning the flames of war, and attacking other Americans' patriotism, is not necessarily leading. History is often accused of having been written by "the winners”. In America, we celebrate winning as if it were our true national religion. But can some victories come at too high a price – especially when the price is not ours to pay, but that of our men and women in uniform, and the innocents in foreign lands who die alongside them, in a war that should never have been launched?
Can Michael Bloomberg possibly hope to follow in John Adams' footsteps? Perhaps that's not a fair question – so let me pose a more modest one. Must a President inevitably be first and foremost, the head of an ideological movement, and a party – and ultimately, as with George W. Bush, a divider? Or is it still possible for a President, be they a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent, to govern as if he were the President of everyone? Were Michael Bloomberg to be elected the 44th President of the United States, Americans would have the opportunity to revisit this proposition. Given everything I now know about human nature, and the long course of American history, I remain a skeptic of Bloomberg's ultimate ability to govern – but a skeptic nonetheless with the heart of a Washingtonian Federalist.
Matthew Carnicelli © 2008. All rights reserved.
Originally published January 9, 2008.
(1) Great Presidents, The Teaching Company, Lecture 29
(2) Founding Brothers, Vintage, Chapter 5
(3) “John Adams”, Simon & Schuster, Chapter 9