The Dashed Dreams of President Bloomberg

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

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; 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.)

In a valedictory interview with the Atlantic, Bloomberg uttered the single phrase that best encapsulates his worldview. Following the polls, he said, is not only “not ethical” but ineffective politics, “because people aren’t good at describing what is in their own interest.” They need the Bloombergs of the world to scrutinize the data on their behalf and figure out what is in their interest. And then, even if he does something for them that they think they don’t want, they’ll appreciate him in the end.

Bloomberg’s methods have been most distinctive and even shocking in the field of “public health”—the term itself is a misnomer, since Bloomberg has erased the distinction between public health and private choice. Through a progressive series of laws, he first banned smoking in bars and restaurants, then trans fats, and finally (and famously, yet unsuccessfully) large sugary drinks.

Bloomberg’s health crusade is so unusual because it embraces a political mode usually associated with the right. Conservatives favor regulation of vice and personal behavior, especially related to sex, because they believe that the state has a legitimate role in shaping the culture. Traditional social values, they believe, undergird stable families and a well-functioning community. Liberals traditionally want to remove the government from regulating personal behavior and to deploy it only in the economic realm.

Bloomberg’s odd synthesis thrusts government into the role of directing personal behavior, in the classic conservative way, but not doing so on behalf of traditional values. Intrusive personal regulation has been used frequently to prevent social change—to suppress premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, dancing, or other threats to traditional values. Bloomberg’s paternalism imposes social change, forcing a liberal nanny state upon an often unwilling public. That his campaigns have generally met with success in transforming the culture—that smoke-free bars have gone from unimaginable to indispensable—only reinforced his conviction that he, Michael Bloomberg, knows best.

This explains Bloomberg’s distinct political style. He displays contempt for all procedural niceties, dismissing opposition as corrupt, ineffective, or otherwise illegitimate, and relies upon his overwhelming personal wealth to bury all opposition. Bloomberg’s fortune is of such a massive scale that his direct campaign spending—outspending his mayoral opponents by first a three-to-one, then an eight-to-one, then a ten-to-one ratio—doesn’t even capture its full effect. Bloomberg’s charitable donations create a sector of their own, serving as a form of private patronage.

In the mayor’s mind, the ends not only justify the means, the ends are the only conceivable metric by which to judge him. When he took control of the city’s schools from the State Board of Education, he shrugged, “The public said we want a decision-maker to go in there and do it right. You can’t please everybody.” In response to critics of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, he snarled, “We are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives.” He waved off the backlash to his soda ban by promising, “Let’s try for a period of two years. We’ll measure the results and see if it works.”

To the critics, this missed the point. The violation—an individual’s right to make a choice that affects nobody else—was a principle that couldn’t be measured. That is the sort of concern Bloomberg seemingly cannot process. Bloomberg’s suspension of the prohibition on a third term was his most representative political act. Did suspending the rules to keep the boss in power have the whiff of Huey Long? Should the process by which Bloomberg went about securing his third term be weighed at all against the potential substantive benefits? The question exasperated him. The only thing that mattered was that the city would wind up with him running it rather than an inferior successor. There was no way to quantify this nebulous idea of “fairness” his critics kept bringing up.

The political style of Bloombergism flows naturally from its policy content. If you set about to flout public opinion, if you believe people will come to love your decisions even if they think they hate them now, then sooner or later you’re going to have to steamroll the opposition.

Bloombergism at the city level is creepy but undeniably effective. But Bloomberg­ism at the presidential level would require scaling up Bloomberg’s political methods in a way that would be utterly unworkable, or else frightening, or possibly both. Residents of New York, and most cities, care far more about ends than means. American citizens care a great deal about means. Bloombergism is the sort of thing the Constitution was designed to prevent.

The Dashed Dreams of President Bloomberg