Mike Bloomberg has been at it for about a month now, and so far his candidacy has proved one thing: Maybe politics is a profession after all.
It’s easy for a billionaire whose achievements have earned him the right to have a reasonably high opinion of himself to turn on the television, see Mark Green or Peter Vallone, and think, These guys look pretty mediocre; I could do that. And it’s easy for that billionaire, being after all a billionaire, to turn the notion into reality by renting the office space and hiring – or, in Bloomberg’s case, hiring and hiring and hiring – the talent. And it’s easy for him, while his candidacy exists only in theory, to get lots of chirpy press, because he’s “new” and “fresh” and all the other featherweight adjectives. Newspaper editors love “new” (some reporters at the dailies complain that they’ve had trouble getting their political copy in the paper unless it was about Bloomberg), and pollsters looking for a headline can always sucker people into supporting an outsider’s candidacy while it’s still theoretical (remember when Charles Barkley was going to be the next governor of Alabama?).
But it turns out, as Bloomberg is learning publicly and embarrassingly, that theory and practice are two different things, and that there’s more to being a politician than speaking nicely in front of television cameras (although so far he’s been awfully inept at that, too). Silly eruptions, like his declaration two days before the Queens fire that mayors don’t really need to go at it 24/7, or last week’s pronouncement that sanitation work is more dangerous than police work, have arrived with the thudding regularity of potholes on the Gowanus Expressway. Politics, it seems, requires a set of skills, talents, and modes of discipline that everybody doesn’t have. Bloomberg shows no sign of acquiring those skills, and unless things change dramatically over the next five months – he sure didn’t leave himself much time to learn, did he? – he’s cruising toward not only losing but becoming that thing that every public person quietly fears becoming: a punch line.
Here’s an example of the problem, which I caught when Bloomberg appeared on June 20 before the Gramercy Park Republican Club. Put aside the fact that he spoke as if he had a mouthful of mashed potatoes, mumbling so passively into a staticky public-address system that the back third of the room could hardly hear a word he said (“Can you speak up?” somebody finally yelled about ten minutes into the talk). And put aside the fact that he made no emotional connection with his audience whatsoever. Those problems were amusing; but what was revealing was his elucidation of the question that governed his thinking as he decided whether to run. “My great conundrum,” he told the room, “was, Could I be the best mayor the city has ever had?”
That may sound bold on the surface, but – and this is something people with political sense know – it is exactly the wrong question. The question a potential candidate, insider or outsider, asks himself is: What’s my rationale for doing this? A candidate like Bloomberg has a lot of puddles to jump over before he earns the right to muse publicly about how great a mayor he might be, and Bloomberg’s question perfectly represents the awkward combination of arrogance and naïveté that is the hallmark of his effort so far.
Take, also, the question of his party-registration switch. The chattering class has largely given him a pass on that one. Michael Kramer in the Daily News declared it a “nonevent.” I declare otherwise. Fine, the Democrats’ primary process was closed off to him. But now that he, a lifelong Democrat, is trying to persuade Republicans to vote for him, and is straining to bask in the refracted glow of both Giuliani and Pataki, isn’t it relevant to ask him what he’s done in his life to earn Republican affection? How does he feel about Jim Jeffords’s party switch? Did he support John Ashcroft for attorney general? Did he even vote for the two men whose backing he’s seeking, the better that he be koshered up in the eyes of voting Republicans?
Proof that it’s an “event” is the fact that Bloomberg ducks it. Reporters have tried to ask him for the record how he voted, and he won’t answer. When I called his spokesman Bill Cunningham, he stood pat: “He’s said he’s not going to talk about it.” A citizen’s vote is private. But a candidate answers this question because he understands that voters have a right to know this kind of thing. I asked Herman Badillo last week how he voted in November’s presidential and senatorial elections, and he said, without a moment’s hesitation, “Of course I voted for Bush and for Lazio.” I haven’t asked the four major Democrats, but I’m sure they’d happily tell me, or anyone, that they voted for Gore and Hillary.
Bloomberg won’t tell voters. A New York Republican can get away with voting for Gore; many did. But how do you suppose it would sit with Republicans if he pulled the lever for Hillary? Those stale jokes he’s been trotting out against her lately, potshotting her about her being a Yankees fan (even the Post gave up on that a year ago), would disappear from the repertoire pretty quickly.
At other times, Bloomberg praises Hillary’s hard work as a model for how he’ll campaign. But Hillary spent months learning about the PCBs in the Hudson, the impending fate of the lobster hatcheries in the Long Island Sound, the minutest details of the state’s energy-deregulation scheme and its Medicare-funding formulas. She knew her liabilities; she understood what she needed to prove to people, and she proved it.
Bloomberg seems to think that his biography and his rhetoric about leadership are enough, and that voters should take him on faith. The most telling two words he’s spoken in this campaign appeared in the last paragraph of a Times profile on June 11. If he lost this election, reporter Leslie Eaton asked him, would he spend the next four years studying the city and its agencies and come back a better-prepared and more knowledgeable candidate, as Rudy Giuliani had done between 1989 and 1993? His answer: “Get serious!” Those words should offend every adult in this city. If the job for which he claims to have such passion, in the city he professes to love, isn’t worth five years of his time – one doubts he built his business on such an attitude – then it’s hard to imagine why he’s worth five months of ours.
Get serious yourself, Mike.