The sight of Bloomberg affixing his seal of approval on a clutch of picks across the land, eclectic in their party labels but consistent in their moderation, has stirred questions about his motives—and national aspirations. Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson says that his boss is doing little more than wielding his influence to blunt the purity-crazed polarization that Bloomberg regards as a national curse. “The mayor wants to help elect centrists for office at all levels,” says Wolfson. “He believes that it’s critical that we have elected officials who can and will work in a bi-partisan way in order to get things done.”
There is, of course, an alternative explanation: that the mayor’s peregrinations are an informal campaign of their own. That he is trying to raise his national visibility and take the temperature of the body politic. That he is once again considering an independent presidential bid. “Oh, he’s more than thinking about it,” says a Bloomberg confidant. “He’s full-bore, all-out exploring it.”
Anyone whose memory isn’t terminally addled will recall that Bloomberg embarked on a similar voyage three years ago, but ultimately decided that 2008 was not the year for him to make a bootleg scramble for the White House. In no small part, Bloomberg reached that conclusion because he regarded Obama and McCain more or less as centrists, too close to his own worldview and governing philosophy to leave enough running room for him. A lot has changed since then, however—from Obama’s dramatic loss of support among independent voters and the equally striking disaffection he has engendered in the business community to the Republicans’ collective lurch into right-wing nihilism. “The goalposts are much wider now than four years ago,” says the Bloomberg intimate.
What hasn’t changed is that Bloomberg is surrounded by people urging him to run. (A recent column in the Times by Tom Friedman, advocating a pro-business, pro-green, pro-pragmatism third party, was seen by many in Bloomie’s circle as a trial balloon.) Another constant is Kevin Sheekey, the mischievous former deputy mayor now employed at Bloomberg L.P., who was a one-man bandwagon for the idea in 2008 and is still aggressively pushing it now. Yet another is the mayor’s plain desire to be president, fueled today by the realization that, at 68, this is probably his last shot. And still another is that Bloomberg has no intention of running unless he perceives a plausible road to victory. “Unless he thinks he can win, he will not do it,” says someone else who has MRB’s ear.
One key factor, now as three years ago, is Bloomberg’s ability to get onto the ballot nationwide. Thus are Sheekey and others eagerly monitoring a new outfit called Americans Elect, which plans to launch early next year. Backed by a wealthy private investor, Peter Ackerman, the group says on its single-page website that it intends to hold a web-based convention to nominate a “balanced presidential ticket that will bridge the vital center of American public opinion” and place it “on the ballot in all 50 states.” Ackerman has already put $1.55 million into the project, with more to come.
The more pivotal factor, no doubt, will be the behavior of the White House and both parties in the next eighteen months. “The likely scenario is that the economy will rebound, Obama will recover his footing, move back to the center, and take back every voter that he’s lost,” says Mark Penn, chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “But if Obama doesn’t change course and the Republican Party nominates Sarah Palin—and I think she is running and has a high likelihood of winning—then America could look at both parties and say, ‘You don’t have what I’m looking for.’ And that will pose a real opportunity, whether it’s for Bloomberg or ten other people.”
One part of Penn’s analysis is shared by strategists in both parties: that a Palin nomination plus a further slide by Obama would tempt at least one independent or third-party challenger to step into the ring. But among the names occasionally mooted—Donald Trump? Really?—Bloomberg’s would be the most viable. His economic competence and financial acumen would appeal to moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats, and his liberal stances on the Park51 mosque, gay marriage, and other social issues might make him appealing to some progressives disappointed in Obama.
Bloomberg is well aware, because his advisers have flatly told him, that the White House is fretting about his entering the race and that this fear is what has motivated their sycophancy toward him lately. But the flattery must seem puzzling to the mayor, since the administration, in his view, has ignored his advice to be more supportive of business and stop trashing Wall Street, which, naturally, he believes would help save Obama’s bacon—a result that, in turn, would be the greatest deterrent to Bloomberg’s running.