Michael Bloomberg stands poised to leave his final term as mayor (pending any further revisions to the city charter) an awesome force who reshaped both the physical landscape and the social habits of the city. The minority of New Yorkers who still oppose him may gainsay his methods or his goals, but none dispute his success. Bloomberg has won.
But in another, larger way, Bloomberg lost. Hovering over the Bloomberg project was the undisguised hope that his task was not just managerial, that his place on Earth was not merely to create the most impressive real-world SimCity of any mayor in America. There would be a Bloombergism beyond Bloomberg himself, a new way of governing, with a broader national application—ideally in the form of a Michael Bloomberg presidency.
The superficial logic of this fantasy, not to mention its aspirational pull on its principal subject, is clear enough. There is an eternal yearning in modern American politics for a great centrist redeemer who can sweep away the ugliness of partisan politics. Since Bloomberg had cast himself effectively in this role in New York, what would stop him from playing it on the national stage?
Of course, the Bloomberg-as-president fantasy has collapsed irretrievably, and the larger project of sustaining his worldview as a replicable credo has failed to track. This failure was inevitable, an odd flight of fancy for a figure so famously and proudly grounded in reality. Bloomberg was a rousing success; Bloombergism, a debacle.
Bloomberg’s image of himself as a potentially unifying national figure rested all along on a series of deep misconceptions. Bloomberg imagined that his brand of good governance would transcend ideological divisions. He attracted talented civil servants, applied rigorous metrics to every facet of their performance, and made government work. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, making government run well is indeed a recipe for broad approval.
In national politics, though, the wisdom of making government run well is a bitterly contested idea. The vision of a government managed by disinterested experts who follow the dictates of empiricism dates back a century to the Progressives—good-government types who are found today on Glenn Beck’s blackboard, connected by conspiratorial arrows to various Obama-administration figures. The most Bloombergian initiative Obama has undertaken, comparative-effectiveness research, empowered the health-care industry to analyze the practical value of different medical interventions. You may know that initiative by its colloquial name: “death panels.” Unsurprisingly, Bloomberg has emerged as a national hate figure among conservatives perhaps second only to Obama. Mississippi passed an anti-Bloomberg law prohibiting any mayor from restricting soda-cup sizes; Reason.com called him “Pol Pot on the Hudson.”
Bloomberg’s faith that bureaucratic competence would allow him to escape partisan division was merely naïve, but his apparent belief that his views on national politics situated him in the center is downright bizarre. He is a conventional social liberal. To the degree that he has separated himself from the Democratic Party, he’s done it mainly by articulating more outspoken versions of the standard liberal view on climate change, gun control, immigration reform, and gay marriage. Yes, Bloomberg assailed Obama for lacking a plan to reduce the budget deficit, which sounds conservative, except that Bloomberg’s own proposal included ending all the Bush tax cuts, not just those for the rich. (The last prominent politician to advocate that? Howard Dean.)
Bloomberg did position himself clearly to Obama’s right in one way, and it was very telling: He robustly defended the rich in general, and Wall Street in particular, from the widespread public revulsion it has faced since the economic crisis. Far from clashing with the general liberal cast of Bloomberg’s ideological profile, this one piece completes it. Bloomberg is the candidate of the Democratic Party’s donor class. He stands for the things the $50,000-a-plate social liberals wish Democratic politicians would say if they weren’t so afraid of how it would play in Toledo. Bloombergism at a national level is merely Democratic Party liberalism stripped of any concern for public opinion.
Some of Bloomberg’s most ardent admirers failed to understand this. The unofficial members of the Draft Bloomberg committee, represented well on the op-ed pages, often presented him as the vox populi of the disaffected center. (Washington Post columnist David Broder urged Bloomberg to run in 2008 because “there is a palpable hunger among the public for someone who will attack the problems facing the country—the war in Iraq, immigration, energy, health care—and not worry about the politics.”) Elitists often think of themselves as populists, but Bloomberg has always been undeluded about this. He is that rare species: not merely a functional elitist but a philosophically committed one.
Bloomberg has explicated his contempt for the hoi polloi bluntly and repeatedly. His proposed ban on large sugary drinks is insanely intrusive if you believe in the classic tradition of Locke and Mill that people ought to be able to make personal decisions as long as they don’t affect other people. Bloomberg believes people can’t make these decisions for themselves, his evidence being that they’re really fat. Bloomberg’s defense of Wall Street revolves around his contention that it’s unfair to blame the big banks rather than the suckers who made bad investments. (“They should have done the research,” he told Esquire.)