But so far the periodic squalls of complaint have done little to dent his popularity. “He’s operating in a very forgiving environment, which he’s helped create,” says one Democratic operative. “His competence has bought off the insiders and the press, and he obviously already had a huge leg up with the power elite. And those are the lenses through which the city largely sees him.”
Bloomberg attributes his belovedness, in part, to the fact that voters now see him as just another ordinary guy. “When I came into office, people said, ‘Billionaire? How do they live? What do they eat? How do they sleep?’ ” he tells me. “Today, they see me on the subway coming uptown. A couple of people say hi, some people smile and nod. Some people just sleep. It’s not an issue.”
A more plausible theory explaining Bloomberg’s Teflon quality is that, in this age of shameless political kowtowing, his candor and what-the-fuck stubbornness have built him a bedrock of respect. That hypothesis will surely be tested in the weeks ahead as the aftermath of the Queens police shooting unfolds. But already Bloomberg is receiving plaudits for handling the controversy in such an un-Giuliani-like way. And that, in turn, suggests another reason for his sustained popularity: his singular aversion to confrontation and histrionics. “There’s always some op-ed guy who writes, ‘We need somebody out there yelling and screaming; New Yorkers want a bigger-than-life, out-there character,’ ” Bloomberg says with a derisive snort. “I don’t know. Show me who wants it. They seem pretty happy with me.”
During Bloomberg’s first term, he repeated ad nauseam that he was “not a politician.” Lately, however, the phrase has all but disappeared from his lexicon. Partly, probably, it’s a matter of his feeling that the point’s been made. But it’s also an admission of the obvious. After five years in office, Bloomberg has honed some serious political chops—and has started, in a fashion too garish for anyone to miss, taking his game to the next level.
Bloomberg’s incursion into national affairs began with a flourish in March, when, in the span of three weeks, he waded into three contentious, headline-grabbing debates. On the fevered grandstanding in Washington over the Dubai ports deal: “What I don’t like is, all of a sudden it becomes the issue du jour and everybody’s rushing up there waving a flag, beating their chests.” On illegal immigrants: “We’re not going to deport 12 million people, so let’s stop this fiction; let’s give them permanent status.” On a gun bill before the House Judiciary Committee: “A god-awful piece of legislation.” Two months later, speaking at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine graduation, he attacked the politicization of science—from opposition to stem-cell research and congressional meddling in the Terri Schiavo case (“Was there anything more inappropriate?”) to the teaching of intelligent design (“creationism by another name”).
Then came the fall campaign and his move beyond national issues to national electioneering—endorsing and raising money for a micro-slate of Bloombergian candidates. There were moderate Republicans such as California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. There were moderate Democrats such as Missouri Senate challenger Claire McCaskill. And there was Senator Joe Lieberman, the country’s most prominent independent, whom Bloomberg aided by dispatching a squad of seasoned hands to shore up his faltering operation. “No one in public life,” Lieberman says, “has done more for me in this campaign than Mike.”
Theories abound about the impetus behind the mayor’s plunge into the national arena. Former Bloomberg spokesman and current deputy mayor Ed Skyler analogizes, “It’s like in the movie The American President, where Michael J. Fox says to Michael Douglas, ‘Let’s take that 60 percent approval rating out for a spin, see what it gets us.’ ”
Bloomberg’s answer is both less colorful and ostensibly less political. “I will speak out on issues that affect the city,” he tells me, “and if they happen on a national basis, so be it. The other requirement is, it must be something where I think I can influence the outcome.” (Thus he keeps quiet about Iraq.)
As for backing candidates across the country, Bloomberg says, “I tried to support people that I respect … You look at Schwarzenegger: He’s worked across party lines. Or Lieberman: I’ve disagreed with him on many things, but he’s at least willing to say what he believes and not listen to what the party tells him to say. Claire McCaskill [supports] stem-cell research that may be the difference one day between you living and dying.”
Cynics will contend, not implausibly, that in supporting some of these folks, the mayor had ulterior motives. In helping McCaskill compete in a state crucial to Democratic hopes of retaking the Senate, he earned a valuable chit with Chuck Schumer. And Lieberman was in line to chair the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, a panel of no small importance to the city.