How Michael Bloomberg Complicates the Election

(Photo: AP)

Michael Bloomberg at the World Climate Change Conference in Paris on December 4, 2015

As you have doubtless read or seen, Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, has put out the word that his minions are testing the waters for an independent candidacy. Bloomberg is supposedly the sensible moderate that the county needs, the one that political polarization has kept from the ballot of either party. But that’s not an obstacle that a few billion dollars from the candidate’s own fortune can’t fix.

Bloomberg is center-right on economics and finance, and liberal on social issues and gun control. He’s not likely to get elected. There is no mass clamoring for such a combination, except among fellow rich people. Yet Bloomberg’s entry could tip the race—more likely to the Republican than the Democrat.

Investment banker Peter G. Peterson made an absolute fool of himself imagining that there was a mass groundswell of public opinion waiting for a leader to step forward urging fiscal austerity so that we could gut Social Security and deflate our way to recovery. He burned through a cool billion of his own fortune setting up one front group after another. The mass support he imagined never materialized.

If you want to know why working-class voters are so angry, it’s because financial elites have been giving them a good economic screwing for at least 30 years. To add insult to injury, the same elites support issues like gun control, gay rights, abortion rights, and higher taxes on gas.  

Those issues would be a hard sell with socially conservative working-class voters under the best of circumstances, and this is not the best of circumstances. FDR was able to make some modest progress on racial justice only because he pulled the country out of the Great Depression. Bloomberg, by contrast, is somewhere to the right of Hillary Clinton on regulation of Wall Street and on paying working people a living wage—and that’s not a very high bar.

Clinton is still the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination, but a Sanders win is not out of the question. Scarcely a day goes by without a news story on the continuing FBI investigation of Clinton’s emails, or recycled stories about Bill Clinton’s womanizing.

Some Clinton supporters insist the latter has long been discounted. Others say that since the Lewinsky affair, the issue of sexual harassment and rape has become newly important to younger women voters, and even recycled Bill stories may undercut Clinton’s credibility as an advocate of women’s rights.

If the general election were to be Trump or Cruz versus Sanders, Bloomberg could well get in. Bloomberg would have reason to get in only if Bernie Sanders is the Democrat. Hillary Clinton is too close to Bloomberg on too many issues to justify his running an independent race. 

However, Bloomberg has put out the word that he plans to decide by March—before either nominee is determined. The sheer momentum of the usual pundits giving Bloomberg friendly press plus his own vanity could propel him into the race, even if Clinton does turn out to be the eventual Democratic nominee.

It’s conceivable, if Trump is the nominee, that Bloomberg could take plenty of votes from moderate Republicans. But most observers seem to think that Bloomberg would be more damaging to the Democrats.

If Bloomberg runs, there are two variations on the same problem for Democrats. First, he pulls support from Democratic centrists and tips states like Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida, and Wisconsin to the Republican. Congratulations, President Trump.

Second, he actually wins some states and electoral votes in a tight three-way race. Under the Constitution, if nobody wins a majority of the Electoral College, the House of Representatives decides the next president. Congratulations, President Paul Ryan!

It’s ironic, but fitting, that the era of unlimited billionaire financing could lead one of America’s wealthiest men, a man who has little regard for today’s Republican party, to swing the election to the GOP.