Politics & Policy

Bloomberg’s White Whale

Bloomberg’s cash couldn’t stop Sheriff David Clarke. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The former mayor’s quest to slay the Second Amendment proves elusive once again.

There is something of Captain Ahab about Michael Bloomberg these days — the former mayor of New York having adopted the profile of a neurotic and fevered old man whose long and checkered career has not yet managed to sate him, and whose ambition will be truly realized only when, finally, he captures his whale and avenges his bruised ego. Alas, yesterday evening, in Milwaukee, Wis., satisfaction eluded him once again, that Milwaukee County’s Sheriff David Clarke — an outspoken apostle of the right to keep and bear arms, and opponent of all that Bloomberg holds dear — winning his primary and overcoming a concerted and expensive attempt to unseat him. This one, Bloomberg had said through an intermediary, was “personal.” One suspects that the loss will be taken hard.

Like so many who share his distaste for the Second Amendment and its apologists, Bloomberg is still laboring under the rotten misapprehension that his political opponents’ advantage is tactical and financial rather than structural and philosophical. But the simple and unsexy truth is that Sheriff Clarke managed to withstand the attempt to unseat him for precisely the same reason as have others who have found themselves in his position: not because he has allied himself with shady and wealthy figures, but because he was defending a basic civil right, and because that civil right is popular. Insofar as the much lamented “gun lobby” had an effect on the race at all, its role, like Michael Bloomberg’s, was to inform the voting public as to where the candidates stood on the issues. That public evidently preferred Clarke’s stance.

’T was ever thus. For decades now, the National Rifle Association and its backers have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that there are electoral and political consequences in store for those who would meddle with voters’ unalienable right to self-defense. The most famous of the Right’s recent victories came in Colorado, where formerly apolitical residents reacted to the passage of an unworkable background-check regime and an arbitrary limit on the size of magazines by recalling three of the lawmakers who had spearheaded the changes. This, perhaps, was Bloomberg’s most stinging defeat. But it was not an aberration. Last November, Bloomberg elected to involve himself in mayoral races in the states of North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania — not merely backing and bankrolling gun-controlling candidates in all three states, but slamming their pro–Second Amendment challengers, too. Not a single one of his chosen candidates prevailed. In Virginia’s 34th House of Delegates district, meanwhile, he loudly backed Kathleen Murphy, a Democrat who transformed her race into a referendum on firearms law. Murphy lost. Officials in Virginia, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd reported, were irritated by Bloomberg’s interference, many going so far as to wonder aloud whether he was becoming a liability. For his part, New York’s senior Democratic senator, Chuck Schumer, suggested that Bloomberg’s scheme was “not effective.”

Sheriff Clarke’s defeat, then, was to be the victory that turned the tide — the example that Bloomberg needed to make the case that taking a hard-line stance in favor of gun rights is a recipe for electoral disaster. And what a catch he would have been! As a black Democratic officeholder in a deep-blue county, Clarke’s enthusiasm for the right to bear arms does considerable damage to the profitable stereotype of gun owners as white, southern, conservative good old boys who are clinging to an exclusive, reactionary, and antediluvian constitutional provision in the hope that one day they might provoke a fight with the government. Indeed, by so readily admitting that the police cannot possibly defend the public at all times — and by explicitly advising the citizens who employ him to exercise their “natural right” and obtain a gun for their safety — Clarke is pretty much the gun-control movement’s worse nightmare. Like Detroit’s outspoken police chief, James Craig, he is a living breathing repudiation of the ugly presumption that an armed citizenry is a dangerous citizenry and that civil society cannot be trusted to serve as the first line of its own defense. The bottom line: Clarke contradicted the narrative, so Clarke had to go.

The fight was a brutal one. Among those who joined the offensive against the incumbent were the mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett; the Milwaukee county executive, Chris Abele; and the influential editorial board of the city’s paper of record, the Journal-Sentinel. Money flowed freely, a progressive PAC called the “Greater Wisconsin Committee” spending a remarkable $400,000 on anti-Clarke television advertisements, which, together with Bloomberg’s personal contribution of $150,000, brought the total allocated for attack ads to $550,000 — a quite astonishing number for a sheriff’s race in the Midwest. Clarke’s defenders, meanwhile, raised less than one-fifth of that number, the NRA injecting $30,000; a local conservative group, Citizens for Responsible Government buying $55,000 in television time; and a black advocacy group, Citizens for Urban Justice, spending $15,000 on radio spots. Elsewhere, the Journal-Sentinel records, Clarke received “a great deal of campaign funds — $20, $50 and $100 — from many out-of-town contributors.”

As per usual, this was not decided by money, but by preferences. Clark was returned by 52 percent to 48, and will go on to run unopposed in the general election. After this term, he has hinted, he will consider running for mayor. Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, will remain, like Ahab before him, “tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote,” and resolved to “smite the sun” should it have the temerity to defy him. “For all men tragically great,” Herman Melville wrote, “are made so through a certain morbidness . . . all mortal greatness is but disease.” As of today, Bloomberg’s disease is not yet cured, and it will probably never be cured, for his affliction is to have been granted more money than sense; to have bought into the conceit that the average American hews to the same prejudices and privileges as do the chattering classes of the Upper East Side and of fashionable Brooklyn; and to have considered earnestly that his checkbook and his admonitions could ever have held more appeal to the electorate than the honest Midwestern sheriff in the cowboy hat.

 Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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