Yet the common theme tying together Bloomberg’s national endeavors, on both politics and policy, is frustration with the failings, inanities, and depredations of the two major parties—perhaps even the two-party system. And here the mayor’s feelings seem profound and visceral, and also increasingly irrepressible.
At an off-the-record lunch with a dozen brand-name CEOs on the day after the election, Bloomberg uncorked a withering indictment of the political class, Democrats and Republicans alike, slamming its members for pandering, myopia, and borderline corruption. He even singled out John McCain, whom he generally respects, for abandoning his position against ethanol subsidies as he prepares to curry favor in 2008 with Iowa caucusgoers.
Bloomberg is hardly more restrained two weeks later, when he calls me for a chat. “Republicans blame Democrats and Democrats blame Republicans, but just look at both of them,” he harrumphs. “They will do anything, say anything, to avoid talking about the important things and the need to sacrifice.” Bloomberg’s pace quickens as he warms to his motif. “The public wants government to address long-term issues: Who’s going to pay for spiraling health-care costs? Or solve our foreign-oil dependency problem? Or pay for retirement costs or take on the environmental issues? … [Politicians] talk about fiscal responsibility, and yet they’re building up this unconscionable deficit, which means your children and grandchildren are going to have to pay for the services the elected officials are promising to the public today. It’s a disgrace.”
If Bloomberg’s riff rings familiar, it should—for it echoes unmistakably the Texan twang of H. Ross Perot. Perot was manifestly unhinged; Bloomberg, by all indications, is sane. And Bloomberg has none of Perot’s isolationist or nativist leanings. But in other ways, their similarities are striking: both arch-capitalists, self-made men, technocrats, moralists; both possessed of a belief that government ought to be run more like a business; both allergic to the cant and dogma inherent in professional politics.
The question is whether that’s the end of the similarities—or if, come 2008, the correlation will gain a new dimension. When I ask Rattner what’s driving the mayor to go national, he answers cautiously. “If by speaking out, he can help move the country forward on issues he cares about, he’s going to do that, even if there’s nothing in it for him,” Rattner says. “That’s at least 50 percent and probably more of why he’s doing it. The rest is, ‘I want to build my profile, keep my options open, and see where life takes me.’ ”
Others, however, are less circumspect. “Once you’ve conquered Gaul,” says the New York political consultant Norman Adler, “you move on to the rest of the empire.”
The day after Bloomberg’s reelection, Kevin Sheekey, his campaign manager, gave a TV interview. At 40, Sheekey is a character straight from central casting: If Karl Rove is (or was) the Architect, Sheekey is the Operator. Puckish, preppy, tousled, and inordinately caffeinated, he was born and bred in Washington and worked for years on Capitol Hill, establishing a rakish reputation. After rising to become Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s chief of staff, he was hired away by Bloomberg in 1997 to be Bloomberg LP’s chief lobbyist and has been with the mayor ever since. Now, appearing on NY1 News, he averred that a Bloomberg presidential bid was “not likely”—though no one had asked if it was.
With that mischievous spark, Sheekey ignited speculation that would soon be blazing like a Bronx tenement circa 1977. By the summer, rarely a week would go by without another story about Bloomberg 2008—most of them the handiwork of Sheekey, whose desire to see his boss run was (and is) frank and unconcealed. “My view is, the country needs to start over; it needs independent leadership,” Sheekey told me last week. “And in 2008, Mike Bloomberg is the guy who could give the country that chance.”
Bloomberg’s refusal to muzzle Sheekey is seen in political circles as a sign that he wants to stoke the fire. (To put it mildly, there isn’t much freelancing among the mayor’s people.) Bloomberg does nothing to dispel this impression when I ask about his adviser’s sotto voce presidential ruminations. “I’m shocked if Kevin is doing this,” he says, in his best Captain Renault tone. “Shocked!”
That the mayor has an interest in keeping the guessing game going is inarguable. “When you’re talked about as a potential president, it’s flattering to the people you represent,” says his former communications director, Bill Cunningham. “So that helps keep your numbers high, which lets you deal with the State Legislature or the City Council or Congress on stronger footing.”
Over lunch, Bloomberg nearly admits as much. “It gives the mayor a great deal of visibility and a greater ability to influence the debate and get resources for the city,” he says. “From the city’s point of view, it’s probably helpful.”