Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, says he’s decided against running for president — but he sure doesn’t act like it. Over the last two weeks, in several publications, a member of Bloomberg’s inner circle has described the nationwide organization that is being set up in preparation for a possible campaign. Bloomberg himself continues to deny any plans to run but speaks in broad terms of his desire to influence the discussion of issues in this year’s election. In any case, it’s clear that the old Eagle Scout understands the value of being prepared.
If Bloomberg does enter the race, he’ll be the first New York mayor to appear on a November presidential ballot in nearly two centuries. The only other time it happened was in 1812, when the city’s incumbent mayor, DeWitt Clinton, came very close to ending the Virginia Dynasty by unseating the incumbent, James Madison.
DeWitt Clinton resembled Bloomberg in many ways: Wealthy (though mostly through inheritance), a party switcher (he was a Democrat-Republican but ran for president on the Federalist ticket), detail-oriented (he immersed himself in engineering studies while pushing to get the Erie Canal approved, even traveling hundreds of miles through the wilderness to inspect possible routes), and not exactly Mr. Warmth (a recent biographer calls him “reserved and even cold” and “a difficult man to be around.”) Fortunately for him, in the 19th Century, candidates did little retail campaigning.
Moreover, DeWitt Clinton showed similarities with Hillary Clinton, too: smart (like Hillary, he was chosen as commencement speaker of his college class), a talented and ruthless political in-fighter, skillful at recovering from setbacks, and part of a family political dynasty (his uncle George was a longtime governor of New York, and later vice president — Bill Clinton is no relation). Like Hillary, DeWitt was more respected than liked, and he was not above a bit of Clintonian double-talk. In 1812 Madison led the nation into war against Great Britain (which, among other offenses, was inciting Indian attacks against settlers on the Western frontier). By that autumn, the war was going poorly, and in the words of the Dictionary of American Biography: “[Clinton’s] agents recommended him among New England Federalists as a man who would stop the war . . . while with Republicans, they maintained that he would fight it more vigorously than his rival.”
Unlike these two Clintons, Bloomberg seems unlikely to go through with his presidential campaign, despite all the preparation. Most third-party candidates have a strong and simple message, whether regional, geopolitical, class-based, single-issue, or just generally anti-establishment. What are Bloomberg’s political passions? Managerial efficiency and opposition to cigarettes and junk food. (His latest cause is putting calorie counts on chain-restaurant menus, and in a recent interview, the mayor claimed expertise to speak out on national issues because “our fatality rate for traffic and pedestrian accidents is a quarter of the rate of the rest of the country.”) True, Ross Perot was, like Bloomberg, an early Information Age magnate of no great personal charm, and he drew nearly 19 percent of the vote in 1992. But Perot spoke thunderous populist rhetoric and proposed broad and sweeping changes. What will be the slogan for Bloomberg ’08 — “Eat Your Vegetables”?
Regardless of whether Bloomberg actually runs, the 2008 elections should, at long last, signal the end of New York State’s exile from presidential politics. For many years it was the nation’s largest state, and, being evenly balanced between the two parties, it was critical in most elections. Of the 21 presidential contests held between 1868 and 1948 inclusive, all but two (1896 and 1924) had a New Yorker on one of the major-party tickets, either for president or for vice president. Since then, however, as New York has grown reliably Democratic and other states have surpassed it in population, only three New Yorkers have appeared on major-party tickets, all in the second spot and all losers (Jack Kemp in 1996, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and the immortal William Miller in 1964). Not since Nelson Rockefeller and Robert Kennedy in the 1960s has a New Yorker even mounted a strong primary campaign — until now.
In this year’s presidential race, polls put New Yorkers ahead in both parties for a long while, and it was not unrealistic to imagine three on the November ballot. With Giuliani gone, Clinton looking shaky, and Bloomberg doing a Hamlet act, that number may now drop to zero. Still, the fact that the 2008 campaign had two serious contenders — and possibly three — from New York shows that, after spending decades in the wilderness, the Empire State is no longer an afterthought in presidential politics.
– Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.