In both mayoral campaigns Sheekey subscribed to a nonviolent version of the Colin Powell doctrine: Use overwhelming force. So he’d most likely start big, with Bloomberg’s announcement; Sheekey has told acquaintances he’s picturing a rally in the Rose Bowl. Maybe it’s merely Sheekey having a laugh, maybe not. What’s completely serious are his plans for an unprecedented media blitz. “The way Kevin sees it,” a Bloomberg insider says, “the major-party nominees will pretty much be in place by early March. Yet just as people’s political appetites are peaking, the spending of the major-party candidates will crater. They need to regroup and raise money for the general. A well-financed independent could get in when interest is high and seek to define himself.” Bloomberg’s advertising—on TV, on radio, on Websites, in mailboxes—wouldn’t be a brief March blast, either. “It would be inescapable, all the way until November.”
There’s only the small matter of Bloomberg’s saying yes. “It isn’t about which candidate Mike could live with, whether he likes Obama more than Clinton or McCain more than Huckabee,” says Michael Steinhardt, a longtime Bloomberg friend from Wall Street who in 2006 arranged a dinner for the mayor to talk presidential politics. Indeed, Bloomberg lately misses no opportunity to rip the declared candidates. “All Mike cares about,” Steinhardt says, “is whether he can win or not.”
This has been hyped as a conference on nonpartisanship, but it looks more like the Museum of Politicians Who Missed Their Moment. Assembled onstage at the University of Oklahoma in early January are Gary Hart, Christie Whitman, Chuck Hagel, William Cohen, Sam Nunn, David Boren—sixteen august statespersons in all. Plus Mike Bloomberg.
Mostly Bloomberg sits quietly through an hour of vintage Washington-insider windbaggery. No doubt he understands that being associated with these creatures of the Beltway kills his most appealing quality—his hard-edged, businesslike outsiderness. He seems to sag. Until the very end, when, after attempting a hoary football joke, Bloomberg cuts to the chase. “Our people and our country are being hurt by current government policies,” he says, sitting bolt upright. “What we want is people to be selected for government based on competency.” He practically shouts this last word in his nasal Boston honk, and is interrupted by applause.
“There’s a reason his name is on the company, on the terminals, and on the foundation,” says one Bloomberg insider. “Don’t underestimate the ego involved.”
Common-sense competence, undiluted by special-interest money or partisan paybacks, would be part of Bloomberg’s campaign narrative. He’d talk about focusing on results instead of rhetoric as he built a business, and as he made tough choices as mayor. A Bloomberg run makes the most sense if the country continues to go downhill economically and politically. Millions of voters are already disgusted by the bickering of the major-party candidates. If the nastiness between Obama and Clinton worsens, who wins the Democratic nomination matters less than how many voters are so embittered by the process that they’re willing to consider an alternative. “In a Romney-versus-Clinton race, all that is ensured is their hard-core bases, meaning about 35 percent each,” says a GOP contender’s strategist. “Which means there would be room enough to drive through a third-party truck with Bloomberg license plates.” Yet even McCain, the likely GOP victor, would enter the general-election season dragging a dispirited party behind him. Against any and all opponents, Bloomberg, simply by being an independent, would offer himself as change personified, a sharp break from politics-as-usual without being a risky radical.
But while Bloomberg is appealing in an abstract, adult, good-government sort of way, it’s hard to see how he wins enough states outright to reach 270 electoral-college votes. Indeed, the strategists fighting their way through South Carolina and Florida don’t seem worried. “I know Bloomberg is of endless fascination to the New York press,” an adviser to a Democratic contender says, “but talk to me if and when he’s actually in the race.”
Sheekey is combing polling data in search of voter openness to a third-party candidate. The magic numbers are 70 percent of the respondents saying the country is “off track” and 40 percent signaling they’re dissatisfied with the major-party nominees. In the meantime, Sheekey has been working on Bloomberg’s ego and his business instincts. “To this point, this has been as much a campaign for Mike as about Mike,” a Bloomberg insider says. “The more he hears Jeb Bush or Arnold Schwarzenegger say, ‘You could be president,’ the more it sinks in.”
As the economy falters, Bloomberg could position himself as the perfect combination of private-sector entrepreneur and experienced, responsible public-service fiscal steward. “Mike could be one of the most important philanthropists we’ve ever seen,” a Bloomberg friend says. “But one example Kevin reminds him about is the smoking ban. Bloomberg ran for office in 2001 and spent $75 million. If he had taken $75 million and paid for smoking-cessation programs in the city, he wouldn’t have made one-thousandth the difference he made by getting elected and pushing through the smoking ban. Maybe not one-millionth the difference. So the $10 billion or $20 billion he’ll give away over the next twenty years, he could still make a greater difference by becoming president.”