The Catch

Illustration by André Carrilho

The morning before John McCain’s sprightly turn on Saturday Night Live on May 17, the de facto GOP presidential nominee had breakfast at Sarabeth’s on Central Park South with Michael Bloomberg and his girlfriend, Diana Taylor. This much you may have read in the Post, which reported that the trio consumed scrambled eggs and coffee and left a 20 percent tip. (The tab was picked up by the McCain campaign—which is akin in its degree of absurdity to a homeless guy’s stuffing a $5 bill into Warren Buffett’s pocket.) A McCain spokesman quoted by the Post added that “discussing a vice-presidential slot for Bloomberg was not on the agenda.” But a source close to the mayor informs me that the topic of McCain’s V.P. search was very much on the menu. One of the participants, in fact, came away from the conversation under the distinct impression that Bloomberg is on McCain’s short list.

Speculation about the possibility of Mike for veep is nothing new, of course. It’s been bubbling ever since late February, when the mayor decided, once and for all, not to launch an independent bid for the White House. Yet, by and large, the ruminations have revolved not around Bloomberg’s being McCain’s running mate but Barack Obama’s. The hopemonger has courted the mayor, not only orchestrating a breakfast op of his own but running an important economic speech past Bloomberg before he delivered it. And Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, as is his wont, has been stoking the flames like some kind of meth-addled pyromaniac. Moreover, according to a friend of mine who witnessed the exchange, a non-Sheekey member of Bloomberg’s inner circle recently told a prominent CEO in the city that Bloomberg’s and Obama’s people held a meeting in April to discuss the former’s suitability to being the latter’s No. 2.

In a presidential year in which the unprecedented has become the commonplace, and in which the political currents swirling around the race keep carrying us into, as the cliché has it, uncharted waters, maybe it was inevitable that the veepstakes would yield a circumstance this bizarre: the presumptive nominees of both parties seriously mooting the concept of teaming up with the same dude. And not just any dude, mind you, but the Democrat turned Republican turned Independent, divorced, Jewish billionaire mayor of our glorious metropolis. The mind doth fairly reel at the notion—and even more so at the fact that it might actually make sense for either of them.

No, I haven’t been smoking anything, but I can see why you might be wondering. The standard calculation around selecting the Tonto for a presidential ticket boils down to narrow electoral math: Who would most enhance the prospects of carrying a crucial state the nominee might otherwise not win? But Bloomberg would do nothing to alter the outcome in New York for Obama or McCain; the blueness of the state on November 4 is a lead-pipe cinch. And, despite his recent flashes of tetchiness toward anyone who annoys him, Bloomberg has inclinations toward moderation and civility that make him an improbable attack dog—the running mate’s traditional role.

So the case for Bloomberg requires you to stretch your mind a bit. But just a bit. It begins with the eminently reasonable assumption that the economy will be the central issue in the fall campaign—an issue neither Obama nor McCain has a solid handle on. Bloomberg, with his entrepreneurial background and his record of financial stewardship of Gotham, would be a boon to either runner in this department, but maybe especially to McCain, whose economic anti-cluefulness is glaring. “The GOP is losing on the economy by 10 to 15 points,” says Doug Schoen, who served as Bloomberg’s pollster in his mayoral runs. “With Mike on the ticket, that gap would quickly, dramatically close.”

Schoen argues that Bloomberg would help McCain in numerous other ways, too. He would bolster McCain in critical swing states such as Florida, New Jersey (a state the Republicans have hopes of putting into play), and Pennsylvania—and also in California, where the McCain–Bloomberg–Arnold Schwarzenegger troika might compel Obama to spend time and money in a state that should be a gimme. He would enhance McCain’s image as a moderate, a maverick, and provide him with a riposte to the charge that he’s a clone of George W. Bush. (Is there any human being on Earth less like Dick Cheney than Bloomberg?) And if the mayor were willing to plow some of his fortune into the race—assuming election law allows it—he would let McCain close or, if he were feeling generous, eradicate completely the vast disparity between the two sides when it comes to moola.

What Bloomberg would bring to Obama’s ticket would be no less significant. If the central doubt about Obama is his lack of experience (and, in particular, executive experience), Bloomberg would provide a degree of reassurance. Picking him would substantiate and reinforce Obama’s message of pragmatism and post-partisanship. And he would go a long way toward mitigating Obama’s problem with Jewish voters, a dilemma brought on by a combination of his association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the nuthouse rumors that he is a closet Muslim, and his willingness to talk to anti-Israel crackpots such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Just how serious is that problem? So serious it might put Florida out of Obama’s reach. And Schoen contends it might even give him trouble in states as far-flung and unlikely as Nevada (where the electorate is 3 to 4 percent Jewish—who knew?), Colorado (1 to 2 percent), and Pennsylvania (4 to 5 percent). “For Obama, the question is, how does he get to the states John Kerry carried plus one?” says a Democratic operative. “Given his difficulties in Pennsylvania and Ohio, there’s not a lot of room for error. With Bloomberg on the ticket, Florida is back in play—especially if he’d spend, say, $50 million on Barack’s behalf there.”

For both Obama and McCain, to be sure, there are obvious downsides to pairing up with Bloomberg. A pro-choice, pro-gun-control running mate would only exacerbate the suspicions about McCain on the true-believing right. And the Democratic base would hardly jump for joy at the sight of a plutocratic former Republican (however much of a charade that affiliation always was) hand-in-hand with Obama onstage at the convention in Denver.

More to the point, each candidate has other options that might do more for them than Bloomberg would. Last week came word that McCain would be hosting three viable possibilities at his Arizona ranch for the weekend: Mitt Romney, Florida governor Charlie Crist, and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. Each would cause fewer headaches for McCain and add geographic and/or substantive balance to the ticket. As for Obama, Bloomberg would do nothing to remedy his shortcomings in the area of national security. Nor would he be the optimal choice to attract the support of white working-class voters, especially female ones. An arguably more powerful case can be made for Virginia senator Jim Webb, the Scot-Irish former secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan; Ohio governor Ted Strickland; or Hillary Clinton, among others.

The premise of the case for MRB, however, is that vice-presidential nominees rarely deliver much directly in terms of votes, let alone states. “When’s the last time you met someone who based their vote on who the V.P. was?” asks one Bloomberg advocate. The main function of a veep choice, goes this line of argument, is branding. What would say more about Obama’s desire to reach beyond traditional categories and transform our politics? What, coming from McCain, would be more of a declaration of independence from the GOP? “The Republican brand is dead, at least for this election,” says Schoen. “McCain needs to go outside the box, and that’s where Mike lives.”

Given his druthers, which of the two would Bloomberg prefer to get the call from? His relationship with McCain has been longer, warmer, dating back many years. McCain endorsed him for mayor in 2001, long before Rudy Giuliani did; Bloomberg has hosted a book party for McCain and visited him at his ranch. But the mayor also likes Obama, seeing eye to eye with the Democrat on many issues, including Obama’s refusal to pander on the gas tax, for which Bloomberg flayed McCain and Clinton.

The real questions are whether Bloomberg would take the V.P. slot and whether he’d open his wallet in the bargain. Sheekey recently remarked on NY1 that “the mayor has said that he may be too far along in life to work for anyone else.” But the truth is, most people around Bloomberg believe that as long as he was given a real portfolio—“Super Duper Treasury secretary” is Schoen’s suggestion—he’d jump at such an entreaty. His decision not to run for the top job reflected no lack of interest, but instead the conclusion that he couldn’t win. As for the cash, Sheekey has suggested that it would be free-flowing. “Listen, Mike Bloomberg spent $83 million in a reelection simply in New York City,” he said on NY1. If he were V.P., the figure would be “between zero and a billion [dollars].”

The billion-dollar number is ridiculous on its face—a bald-faced attempt to cause McCain and Obama to start panting like a pair of hounds. But the impact of even a small fraction of that would be huge. After all the talk last year about a subway series, Clinton versus Giuliani, it would be pretty rich if the New Yorker who wound up on one of the two tickets turned out to be Bloomberg. But even if he doesn’t, that his name is in the veep mix at all says something important about this election: that both putative nominees realize that voters are yearning for a radical departure from the brain-dead, polarizing, base-driven stratagems that have turned the past several presidential cycles into object lessons in democratic dysfunction.

Mike Bloomberg, symbol of American discontent. Will wonders never cease?


The Catch