Michael Bloomberg recently put a toe in the political waters by letting it be known that he was considering a race for president in 2016 as an Independent. According to a story in The New York Times, Bloomberg is unhappy with a possible choice of candidates between Donald Trump or Ted Cruz as the Republican nominee, and Bernie Sanders the Democratic opponent.
While it was only a toe, the toe of a billionaire was sufficient to cause quite a few ripples. The candidates in the existing field were, unsurprisingly, not impressed with the need for another entrant. But pundits, though skeptical, were pleased to have another topic on which to opine. In the meantime, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders continued the pas de deux in which they attempt, without getting too unpleasant about it, to convince the Democratic base that each is just a bit more liberal than the other. And Clinton promptly assured Bloomberg that, to the extent he was concerned about a Sanders candidacy, she would relieve him of that burden by securing the nomination herself.
For our part, we found the Bloomberg news to be mildly encouraging. Although we are no part of the Republican “establishment,” (defined in the Times as elected officials, lobbyists and donors), we have shared its growing angst over the prospect of a ticket headed by Trump or Cruz. And whether a survivor will emerge from the circular firing squad of mainstream candidates remains in doubt. We are keenly aware of the barriers that have always been insuperable by independent candidates for president in the past. Nevertheless, Donald Trump has proven, if nothing else, that this strange political year is like no other. It could be that, as observed on Vox:
[A] Bloomberg run — especially against Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders — might actually result in more Americans being able to vote for a candidate who reflected their views than the current two-party system.
In the past, Bloomberg has reportedly concluded that his centrist policies could not survive the primaries of either party and that he could not win as an Independent either. He may, however, see a unique opportunity in the current turmoil. Reports of Bloomberg’s thinking appeared to focus on the possibility of a Sanders nomination, and that might well present the strongest opportunity. For example, Ed Rendell, the former Governor of Pennsylvania and former Democratic National Chairman said that in the event of a three-way race involving Bloomberg and Sanders he would consider supporting Bloomberg. “As a lifelong Democrat, as a former party chairman, it would be very hard for me to do that,” he said. “But I would certainly take a look at it — absolutely.”
Still, we do not think that Bloomberg’s options should be tailored only to a Sanders nomination. In an op-ed column that preceded the disclosure of Bloomberg’s interest, Peter Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations who has written widely on politics, assumed the possibility of a race between Trump and Clinton. His assessment of Trump minced no words:
Mr. Trump’s virulent combination of ignorance, emotional instability, demagogy, solipsism and vindictiveness would do more than result in a failed presidency; it could very well lead to national catastrophe. The prospect of Donald Trump as commander in chief should send a chill down the spine of every American.
Wehner, however, found the alternative of Hillary Clinton unacceptable not only on grounds of policy differences but because he views her as an “ethical train wreck.” Hence he concluded that:
If Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton were the Republican and Democratic nominees, I would prefer to vote for a responsible third-party alternative; absent that option, I would simply not cast a ballot for president. A lot of Republicans, I suspect, would do the same.
We would differ with Wehner’s argument in one respect. Specifically, we would fault his omission of Cruz, an alternative that in our view is no more palatable than Trump. (For a cogent assessment of Senator Cruz’s qualities we would urge readers to read Bret Stephens’s column in The Wall Street Journal, “What Ted Cruz Values.” As Stephens observed along the way, “Ted Cruz is the guy who made Donald Trump look tolerant and statesmanlike. That’s saying something.” In any case, Wehner’s analysis points up the potential importance of a “responsible third-party alternative.” And there is no one better equipped than Bloomberg to provide that alternative to any match-up among Trump, Cruz, Clinton and Sanders.
It may be assumed that Bloomberg’s interest in a candidacy is not motivated solely by a felt need to protect the nation from a presidency Trump or Cruz on the one hand or Sanders on the other. It has been widely reported that Bloomberg has been interested in running for president for several years but felt blocked by the two-party system. And if Sanders presents the strongest case for intervention, Clinton may not be too far behind. According to the Times, Bloomberg has lamented what he considers Mrs. Clinton’s lurch to the left in her contest against Mr. Sanders, especially her criticism of charter schools and other education reforms that he pushed as mayor and has continued to support since leaving office.” More pertinent than policy differences, however may be the appearance of growing weakness on the part of Clinton.
Hillary, it is fair to say, carries more baggage than an American Airlines carousel, and the results of the continuing FBI investigation into her email misadventures cannot be predicted. It is possible that Clinton might be able to stagger across the finish line to win the nomination but emerge a seriously damaged candidate for the general election. Bloomberg’s contemplation of a possible race against Clinton is also suggested by reports that he has commissioned a poll testing how well he would do against her as well as Sanders.
On the Democratic side, Clinton and Sanders tangled most recently at a Town Hall forum in Iowa on Monday, January 25 with little if any change in their respective positions or relative strengths. Clinton has suggested that the programs Sanders has proposed cannot be paid for and could not pass a Congress in which Republicans control at least one, and perhaps two, houses. We not only that believe Clinton is right on that account, but that much the same could be said of many of her own proposals, which might be described as Sanders Lite.
In a recent interview, President Obama maintained a neutral stance, but found ways, subtle and not so subtle, to suggest his support for Clinton. And why not? She was an important part of his administration and contributor to his oft-mentioned legacy. For her part, Clinton has sought increasingly to portray her candidacy as an extension of the Obama administration. That makes a certain amount of sense in the context of Democratic primaries, as Obama remains a popular and respected figure in that party. How helpful that strategy will be in a general election is less clear.
Those who are skeptical of a Bloomberg run point to his liabilities from the perspective of both left and right. His positions on gun control, abortion, immigration reform are an anathema to many on the right. From the left, there are those who will be offended not only by Bloomberg’s wealth and ties to Wall Street, but his advocacy of charter schools and privatizing many city services while Mayor as well as his support of the police tactic of Stop and Frisk. Yet we believe that there are many RINOs and other centrists on both parties who would find those policies attractive or, at least, not disqualifying. And, he would share with Donald Trump the advantage of being able to declare himself unbeholden to donors.
It has been observed that a three-way race might result in no candidate receiving a majority and the election being thrown into the House of Representatives. That would present a complex and fluid situation that cannot be assessed from this distance. When and if we form any coherent thoughts on the subject, we’ll let you know.