Out of a combination of pragmatism and perversity, we New Yorkers tend to be of two minds about a lot of things, including our politicians. Although I’ve now voted twice for both Rudy Giuliani (for mayor, in 1993 and 1997) and Hillary Clinton (for senator, in 2000 and 2006), Clinton is not my first choice among the candidates running for president, and Giuliani is probably my last choice among the leading contenders. Yet as a civic narcissist—one infected, as John Updike has written, with “the true New Yorker’s secret belief that people living anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding”—I find myself pleased by the prospect of both major parties picking New Yorkers to be their 2008 presidential candidates. And the chance that the election could be a serious three-way race among New Yorkers—that is, if Mike Bloomberg announces his independent candidacy in March, after Clinton and Giuliani have their respective nominations sewn up—actually makes me giddy.
The odds of a New York trifecta (or even the Democrat-Republican daily double) have lengthened during the last month, as Clinton’s lead in Iowa and Giuliani’s nationwide have evaporated and eroded, respectively. But according to the most recent national polling, Clinton’s margin over Barack Obama is still substantial, and Giuliani remains the leader among Republicans.
And based on conversations with Bloomberg’s friends and advisers, I’d put the chance that he’ll run at around 50-50 if Obama does not become the presumptive Democratic nominee. Merely switching his registration from Republican to independent last summer made Bloomberg’s poll number in a hypothetical race against Clinton and Giuliani spike to 17 percent; if and when he officially starts running, just as the electorate’s buyer’s remorse is settling in, he will surely pop to 25 percent or more, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t do better in November than any third-party candidate in history. MikeBloomberg.com, with a home page touting his “nonpartisan solutions” to climate change and health care and highlighting Newsweek’s declaration that “he has the money and the message to upend 2008,” gives every appearance of being the site of a presidential candidate–in–waiting.
These three are obviously very different people, but they’re also definably New Yorkers of a broad type. They’re all hardworking, ferociously ambitious, aggressively intelligent, socially liberal, shrewd, and arrogant, respected more than loved. Two out of three live on the Upper East Side, two have published best-selling books, two are ethnic non-Protestants, and two are somewhat scary, grudge-holding lawyers. And they also all have similarities beyond their common New York psycho-geography. None is a very good public speaker. All were born during the same five-year span of the forties. Giuliani, Clinton, and presumably Bloomberg voted for George McGovern in 1972, all have been both Democrat and Republican, and all first ran for office late, in their forties or fifties.
Part of the attraction of Clinton vs. Giuliani vs. Bloomberg would be like that of a subway series in baseball, the intense indulgence of our collective vanity that we live at the epicenter of everything and everyone important in America. Sure, we lost the national capital 217 years ago, and the crucial out-of-town tryouts now take place in Iowa and New Hampshire, but imagine a season in which all the principals (and their managers and handlers) were New York–based. If the nation’s selection of the Most Powerful Person in the World becomes, for the first time ever, a parochial rumble among local familiars—Yo, Rudy! Yo, Hillary! Yo, Mike!—our habitual, somewhat insufferable sense of ourselves as in-the-know insiders will be turbocharged for a generation.
But our bragging rights would be serious and substantive as well. A Clinton-Giuliani race would arguably mean that the modern political ascendancy of the Sunbelt and the South had peaked. And if Bloomberg were to run strongly, politics would indeed be upended—for the better, I happen to think, but in any case for real.
And then there would be the sheer entertainment value, the election unfolding like a grand work of fiction, thanks to the backstories we know better than anyone.
In 2000, New Yorkers had all gathered in the schoolyard for a vicious, epic fight between Giuliani and Clinton for our empty Senate seat—but then Rudy, thanks to his cancer and his adultery, begged off. Now, as a result of 9/11—see, it’s always all about us—our canceled celebrity death match can finally take place, this time vastly more vicious and epic and consequential than the original would have been. Given that Giuliani’s campaign is already focused on slagging Hillary, imagine the vitriol and mutual loathing that could accumulate by next fall.
Almost any predecessor-successor relationship is fraught, but the chill between the current and former mayors is decidedly so. “Now that The Sopranos is over, we have Giuliani-Bloomberg,” says Fran Reiter, who served Rudy as campaign manager and deputy mayor before he turned on her. Giuliani, being Giuliani, has been peeved by what he considers his successor’s “betrayal”—that is, by the fact that Bloomberg is a successful, innovative, tough-minded, crime-reducing mayor whom no one hates or considers a psycho. Giuliani must have been galled by the Daily News poll, earlier this year, in which New Yorkers by a two-to-one margin called Bloomberg the more effective mayor—and by 46 to 29 percent said he’d make a better president. In a race against Giuliani, Bloomberg would be the super-successful businessman, generous philanthropist, and consistent, even-keeled leader versus the tightly wound former prosecutor who has just spent a couple of years dissembling about his previous strong support of gays, immigrants, abortion rights, and gun control. And won’t we enjoy the televised debate moment when Bloomberg asks Giuliani why he left a budget deficit twice as big as the one he’d inherited from a Democrat?