Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

Mike Bloomberg Runs for President

(Roman Genn)
Grab ’Em by the Slurpee

An angry, vain, out-of-touch white guy from New York City. Lots of money. Weird little neuroses he insists on working out in public. Issues with women, a habit of taking racially charged political stances, and a history of leaving friends and enemies alike unsure which side of the aisle his loyalties actually lie on. It is impossibly amusing to imagine the 2020 presidential match-up pitting Donald Trump against Michael Bloomberg — President Grab ’Em by the P***y vs. Mayor Grab ’Em by the Slurpee — but the Democrats do not seem very likely to nominate their own billionaire Manhattan megalomaniac, which is really too bad: He is their best candidate. 

We should not write off Michael Bloomberg just yet — so says the author of the 2016 non-bestseller The Case against Trump — if only because we live in insane political times during which anything, apparently, can happen, and just might. But Michael Bloomberg is no Donald Trump, and most of the many things he has in common with the president will work against him in the 2020 Democratic primary at least as hard as they worked in favor of Trump in 2016. 

For example, Democrats are not entirely immune to that eternal nonsense about the need to “run government like a business,” but they are less vulnerable to that than Republicans are. Bloomberg could with good reason point to himself as a genuine self-made man in sharp contrast to the playboy-heir in the White House: Trump inherited a vast fortune and lost most of it before growing wealthy in the celebrity racket, whereas Bloomberg, the son of modest middle-class parents (his father was a bookkeeper at a dairy company and, later, a real-estate agent), built a globally significant information powerhouse and, along with it, a fortune that puts his personal wealth at multiples of Trump’s. Bloomberg is the real-life version of the kind of guy Trump used to play on television: a domineering, ruthless, hypercompetent executive and entrepreneur. But Democrats are not very excited about alpha-dog businessmen and billionaires these days, especially media/tech billionaires who are also crotchety old skirt-chasing white guys. 

And a crotchety old skirt-chasing white guy who has been elected to office once as a Republican and precisely zero times as a Democrat? Let us merely note that bipartisanship is not very much in fashion right at the moment. Even Bloomberg’s remarkable philanthropy — his speechwriters, if they are any good, might acidly note that he has given away more money than Donald Trump has ever made — puts him on the wrong side of the angry American Left, which dismisses philanthropy as a cynical distraction from robust state-centered programs of economic redistribution. 

Whereas Donald Trump thrived on identity politics — the crusade of the Great White Cheesed-Off Interior Real America vs. . . . Mexicans, globalists, Jewish refugees from Breitbart, Ted Cruz’s dad, “the Swamp,” the Chinese, Ted Cruz’s wife, the Germans, NATO, more Mexicans (¡cuidado, Judge Curiel!), Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, American prisoners of war, etc. — Michael Bloomberg instead faces an uphill fight on the identity-politics front. He does not tick any of the right boxes and checks off most of the wrong ones. In an age of intersectionality, the only intersection Michael Bloomberg comfortably occupies is at the corner of Rat and Bastard. 

(Or 59th and Lexington, sure: To-may-to, to-mah-to.)

Bloomberg is a Washington outsider in a genuine sense: He served three terms as mayor of New York City and has generally regarded Washington and its denizens as something somewhere between necessary evil and evil. But whereas Trump’s outsider status endeared him to Republicans, who are nearly uniform in their rhetorical detestation of Washington, Bloomberg’s outsider status does nothing for him among Democrats who are interested in centralizing power in Washington and believe, not without reason, that this ambition would best be served by the leadership of a veteran of the national legislature. Republicans in 2016 wanted a frothing rage-monster who would put Washington’s elites in their place; Democrats in 2020 want a cool insider who will rally Washington’s elites to their cause. 

Which is to say, most Democrats want a variation on the theme of Barack Obama: Joe Biden was Obama’s vice president; Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg both are products of Harvard (the law school and the undergraduate college, respectively) and both would represent a first in the White House: first woman, first gay man. (You get an asterisk, James Buchanan.) Buttigieg’s smug corporate style, bred at McKinsey & Company, has more than a little Obama in it. (A little bit also of Bill Clinton, another Rhodes scholar.) Senator Warren represents to some Democrats the missed opportunity of the Obama years, an alternative storyline in which President Obama went after Wall Street hammer-and-tongs. That appeals to many Democrats, while a sizeable minority of them, between 15 percent and 25 percent, prefer the outright socialist Bernie Sanders — and Michael Bloomberg does nothing to satisfy either tendency.

And that raises Michael Bloomberg’s biggest cultural challenge in the Democratic primary: Democratic voters in 2020 are a mirror image of Republican voters in 2016 in that they do not desire mere electoral victory but also a cultural repudiation of the incumbent president — they want political antimatter, much as Republicans in 2016 found in Trump, who is as different a man from Barack Obama as the national stage had to offer. Michael Bloomberg may despise Donald Trump and hold him in contempt, but he is in affect and cultural temperament a man more similar to than dissimilar from the president, at least from the point of view of a teachers’-union-local president in Milwaukee, which is the point of view that matters most in Democratic circles. 

Donald Trump ran as the Republican id; Michael Bloomberg is running as the Democratic superego, the pain-in-the-ass guy with the spreadsheets and the deliverables and the performance reviews and the quarterly reports. And nobody seems to be in the mood for a grown-up right now. 

Bloomberg’s virtues for the Democrats ought to be obvious enough: He may have been elected mayor as a Republican, but on the emotionally urgent issues he is with few exceptions firmly aligned with the center-left positions that represent, in theory, the main stream of the Democratic party: He has been unwaveringly pro-abortion; he has been more active in the cause of imposing new firearms restrictions than any other American political figure; on climate change he is comparable to any of the familiar greenie-weenies, and arguably more effective when it comes to bringing other business leaders on board, which is a necessary precondition to any plausible advancement of a global climate-change agenda. 

Bloomberg even has a little something to offer conservatives: His pragmatism and his relatively modest conception of the presidency as an administrative position rather than as an elected godman-emperorship ought to be music to rightish ears, although it remains to be seen whether those laudable inclinations will long survive the aggrandizing temptations of the primary. For conservatives and partisan Republicans, Bloomberg raises a tricky question of political calculation: Should the Right encourage the growth of a (relatively) moderate and (relatively) pragmatic tendency in the Democratic party as a way of boxing in the daft enthusiasms of its ascendant socialists, or should the Right instead prefer to see the Democrats let their freak flag fly, on the theory that this will make them easier to beat — which it might, but it also might simply drive American politics as a whole in a leftward direction.

The Democrats face the opposite calculation: As the failures to launch and sad fizzles of such plausible moderates as Montana governor Steve Bullock suggest, the appetite for Clinton-style business-friendly Democratic pragmatists is not very large at the moment, and if Joe Biden is tripping over the rightward bound of the acceptable Democratic field of play, then Michael Bloomberg is on the wrong side of the line, even though he has foresworn the stop-and-frisk policy that he once credited with helping to keep a lid on crime in New York. At the same time, the polls have shown Trump trailing Biden but leading Warren in the battleground states that are likely to decide the 2020 presidential election, which suggests that the Overton window of the Democratic primary electorate is seriously misaligned with that of the general electorate. 

Whether the Democrats would prefer losing with Elizabeth Warren to winning with Michael Bloomberg is likely to remain an entirely hypothetical question, but it is one worth giving at least a little thought to in these very strange times. Trump vs. Bloomberg is not a likely matchup, but then neither was Trump vs. Clinton. 

This article appears as “Grab ’Em by the Slurpee” in the December 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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