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Jewish World Review July 17, 2006 / 21 Tamuz 5766

John H. Fund

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America's Other Mayor: Michael Bloomberg ponders the Perots and cons of a third-party presidential run


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | NEW YORK — Democrats and Republicans here are taking seriously talk that Mayor Michael Bloomberg will run as an independent for president in 2008. One source close to Mr. Bloomberg predicts he will dispose of his multibillion-dollar business holdings next year, give much of it away to charity, and use some of the remainder for a high-stakes presidential campaign.


At a dinner party I attended last month, much of the talk was about whether the mayor might run. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, noted that the people around Mr. Bloomberg were clearly making noises about the possibility. Another leading Democrat, who is close to Sen. Hillary Clinton, opined that a Bloomberg candidacy would wind up hurting her general-election chances. A Republican broke in to disagree, noting that should the GOP nominate a highly conservative candidate in 2008, Mr. Bloomberg could snap up votes from middle-of-the-roaders in both parties attracted to his technocratic style.


But could a Bloomberg candidacy actually succeed? Certainly, dissatisfaction with both major parties is high, with large numbers of Americans viewing Republicans as unprincipled and less than competent and Democrats as feckless and unserious. Similar conditions gave rise to Ross Perot in 1992, and for a while the diminutive Texas billionaire was running first in the polls. He eventually won 19% of the national vote and helped Bill Clinton defeat the first President Bush.


Bloomberg boosters say their man has far more advantages than Mr. Perot did. Most obviously, Mr. Bloomberg has actually won two elections, whereas Mr. Perot never held elective office. Dick Morris, the former Clinton adviser, says the mayor has turned into a skilled media performer and has weathered national media scrutiny. "That education makes it unlikely that he will implode with paranoia or be rattled by the antics of the party national committees, as Perot was," says Mr. Morris.


Mr. Bloomberg would likely want for money even less than Mr. Perot did. The mayor is said to be thinking about selling the stock he holds in Bloomberg Inc., the media conglomerate he founded. Although the company is privately held, estimates of the value of his portfolio usually run into the billions of dollars. New York PR impresario Howard Rubenstein says that at a dinner party last April, the mayor said he would spend real money should he run for president. "I could easily put up half a billion," Mr. Rubinstein quotes the mayor as saying. That sum represents almost as much as both George W. Bush and John Kerry combined spent during the 2004 presidential race. Just running for re-election as mayor last year, Mr. Bloomberg dropped some $85 million of his own money into the campaign.


The deep political thinking behind a potential Bloomberg run comes from Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, who has been encouraging his boss to travel around the country and make policy pronouncements. This month, the mayor showed up at a Senate hearing in Philadelphia and noted that the Big Apple's economy would collapse without the 500,000 illegal immigrants living in his city. He added that the same was true of America as a whole. In Baltimore, the mayor gave a major speech calling for more government funding for stem-cell research. In Chicago, he blamed both political parties for gridlock and argued that "both seem unwilling to change." That sounds like a third-party campaign message.


How would a Bloomberg candidacy affect the race between Democrats and Republicans? Mr. Sheekey notes that no Democrat has won more than a bare majority of the popular vote for president since Lyndon B. Johnson. Thus he thinks almost anything that alters the electoral calculus would benefit the Democrats. But Mrs. Clinton's supporters vehemently disagree, arguing out that a Bloomberg run would put safely Democratic states like New York, Connecticut and New Jersey into play. "It's insane," Clinton aide Howard Wolfson told Ben Smith of New York's Daily News. "He would end up doing a lot more damage to a Democrat than a Republican."


The best guess is that Mr. Wolfson is correct. As the quintessential urban candidate, Mr. Bloomberg would likely appeal most to city dwellers, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic. Then there are his issue positions. Mr. Bloomberg has run and won twice as a registered Republican in New York, but he supports partial-birth abortion, gun control and gay rights and opposes the death penalty.


His record is liberal on fiscal issues too. He raised taxes during his first term and now appears to be on the verge of capitulating to the city's public-sector unions in contract talks. On Saturday the New York Times reported that he has settled for a 10% wage hike over the next 32 months in talks that include no concessions from the union on work rules. "Should Bloomberg cave [in] to one union, the pressure on him to give in to all the others will be immense," says Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Institute. Bowing to the union machine wouldn't exactly represent the kind of profile in courage that voters in heartland states might appreciate.


That raises a question that political consultants on both right and left privately believe would hurt a national candidacy of either Mr. Bloomberg or his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani. "A lot of people outside of New York City won't tell pollsters they don't like the city post-9/11, but they may well vote those emotions," says one consultant with ties to both parties in New York.


In the end, all this speculation may not pan out. Mr. Bloomberg knows that the odds are against him: No modern third-party candidate has come close to winning, and even if one managed to poll close to 40% of the popular vote, it would be hard to carry a majority of the Electoral College. In the absence of an Electoral College majority — something that hasn't happened since 1824 — the next president is selected by a vote in the House, with each state's delegations casting one vote and a majority needed to prevail. Given that almost every House member is a Democrat or Republican (Vermont's Bernie Sanders is an independent, but he's leaving to run for the Senate), an independent's chances of victory there are slim.


At the height of Perotmania in 1992, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call surveyed 301 House members as to how they would vote for president in the absence of an Electoral College majority. Two-thirds said they were uncommitted; the vast majority of the remainder indicated they would either vote the same way as their congressional district or would vote for their party's nominee. "The clear upshot was that Perot was going to have a tough time winning in a two-party dominated House," recalls Jim Glassman, publisher of Roll Call at the time. The same would likely be true of Mr. Bloomberg should he run.


Thus, while the mayor could afford the stratospheric spending requirements of a national campaign, observers think that in the end the 64-year-old mayor is likely to skip the race. "It's a lot of punishment and long hours, and if a reformer like McCain is the GOP candidate, the rationale for [his] candidacy is dramatically reduced," says Ed Rollins, the GOP consultant who along with former Jimmy Carter aide Hamilton Jordan initially ran the 1992 Perot campaign.


The rules and obstacles that stack presidential politics against independent or third-party candidacies aren't fair, but they are nonetheless very real. In the end, three is still usually a crowd when it comes to high-stakes White House politics.

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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)

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