An independent presidential campaign by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be fueled by the widespread public disaffection with the current political environment -- and what could be the biggest financial war chest for any third-party candidate in American history.Bloomberg apparently has resources in the $billions to finance an independent run for the presidency. But my first thought is that third party candidates don't win, so what's the purpose of his defection from the GOP and his late entry into the race? While polls show that Republicans are satisfied with their current line-up of candidates, Howard Dean's fleeting front-runner status for the Democrats in 2003-2004 should remind people of the wide variety of factors influencing these contests. Bloomberg could have entered the race as a GOP partisan (Steve Forbes self-financed his 1996 run for the Republican nomination), yet the mayor probably sees the GOP field as pretty crowded, making it difficult for his candidacy to break into the top tier.
But the former chief executive of a business media empire would face the same obstacles that have snuffed out all prior such renegade ventures, from the 1912 attempt by former President Theodore Roosevelt to Ross Perot's campaigns in 1992 and 1996, the last time an opinionated billionaire sought to upend the two-party system. Indeed, there are signs the Democratic and Republican parties are stronger than 15 years ago, making an outsider bid particularly tough in 2008....
"The likelihood of any independent being elected is remote," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts polls for The Wall Street Journal with Republican Neil Newhouse. But "the likelihood of an independent changing the total dynamics of the election is great. And the impact of a Michael Bloomberg on the election would be to throw all the cards up in the air and redeal them."
What exactly that impact would be is the subject of an increasingly intense debate. Mr. Hart says the independent bid could help Mrs. Clinton, by splitting the opposition to a politician whose poll ratings show an unusually large number of Americans who say they wouldn't vote for her. Others say Mr. Bloomberg would undermine Mrs. Clinton, or any Democrat, since he has generally taken liberal stances on issues such as gay rights and abortion, and his most recent ambitious proposals have included tougher gun control, and a congestion tax aimed at curbing traffic jams and global warming.
In any case, over at the op-ed page, the Journal's lead editorial casts some light on Bloomberg's agenda. The mayor apparently has revived an old trick: He says partisanship is out of control, and that the two-party system is failing the people with the stale debates and "the same old politics":
But his contention that what the country really needs is an executive that transcends politics to "get things done" merits closer scrutiny. In his own words, "any successful elected executive knows that real results are more important than partisan battles and that good ideas should take precedence over rigid adherence to any particular political ideology." He added, in a statement that would make any motivational speaker proud, "Working together, there's no limit to what we can do."Actually, a little more pragmatism -- or at least compromise -- on some issues might help break some of the gridlock (movement on immigration, for example, will require some key actors to give up something). Still, the Journal's editors make a good point. Bloomberg's not Ross Perot. The Texas billionaire entered in the presidential race as an independent voice in 1992 alongside an aloof GOP incumbent (G.H.W. Bush), amid strong perceptions among voters of economic distress (even though the economy had by then emerged from recession), and despite a renewed Democratic Party under Bill Clinton that proposed a more moderate form of liberalism.
Terrific. Amid such happy sentiment, it seems churlish to point out that our disagreements about what the country should do are what lead to those debates that Mr. Bloomberg finds so tiresome. But underlying his critique is a belief, inconveniently belied by the evidence, that there is a large American center unserved by our two-party system.
This is not to say that there aren't plenty of moderates in America, but moderation takes many forms. Antigun, pro-gay-rights, vaguely pro-business (but tax increasing) Mike Bloomberg is one sort. Pro-gun, economically populist Jon Tester, the junior Senator from Montana, is another, different sort. Pro-war Democrat Joe Lieberman is yet another kind. Their differences from each other are at least as important as their supposed moderateness.
As for "rigid adherence to ideology," it's hard to understand how President Bush's current support for immigration reform, Bill Clinton's signature on welfare reform or George H.W. Bush's tax hikes fit into this caricature. Pragmatism is not the sole province of the Mike Bloombergs of the world. But calls on our politicians to be more pragmatic are usually, in practice, calls for them to agree with whoever is doing the calling.
Check the Harwood and McKinnon piece cited above for the interesting table on the historical success rates of third party presidential candidates (scroll down). I doubt a Bloomberg independent run will be any more successful that the mayor's historical third party predecessors.