New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has changed his party affiliation from Republican to Independent. Mr. Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat until he became a Republican in 2001 and entered the New York mayor’s race. He won the general election, taking office just four months after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Governing as a “conservative” (New York style) on taxes and fiscal policy, while leaning liberal on social issues, Mr. Bloomberg capitalized on Rudolph Giuliani’s success and easily won re-election in 2005. His second (and final) term will end in January 2010.
A multibillionaire who made it big in the Wall Street financial information market, Mr. Bloomberg has indicated he might spend $500 million of his personal fortune to run for president, if the situation warrants it. In recent statements he downplayed this, joking that there were already two New Yorkers in the current field. But there seems no other obvious reason for the affable politician to switch parties now. (Perhaps it’s just a precaution. If “W” sends invasion troops into New York, it would be embarrassing to be a Republican.)
Would Mr. Bloomberg help Democrats or Republicans most, if he runs? One can argue either way, but I believe he will help the Democratic candidate. Socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters will prefer Mr. Bloomberg to a Republican candidate who might share the conservative social views of his party’s base. Should the eventual Republican candidate also be a social liberal, Mr. Bloomberg probably would not run. (Hence, his vague declaration of intent.)
It is impossible to prove that either Bill or Hillary Clinton is connected to Mr. Bloomberg’s emergence as a possible independent candidate for 2008, but the remarkable “coincidence” of his appearance does not surprise this commentator. For some time I have expected a new Clinton “insurance policy” without knowing whence it might come. Now — mirabile dictu — another 5-foot-7 billionaire has arrived to fill the role.
Ross Perot is sometimes viewed as Clinton Insurance Policy I. Millions of voters are too young to recall how Mr. Perot’s fiscally conservative message attracted many Republicans in 1992. Some have argued Mr. Perot’s 19 percent share — mostly voters who had supported Mr. Bush in 1988 — was enough to hand Bill Clinton a surprise win, with just 43 percent of the vote. To ensure another Clinton “landslide” in 1996, Mr. Perot re-emerged to run again. Entering the race around July ‘96, he still pulled an 8.7 percent share. Mr. Clinton carried 49 percent of the vote, and Mr. Dole 41 percent.
Mr. Perot announced his candidacy late in both races, catching Republicans off-guard and giving them little time to contend with (or adopt) his proposals. Mr. Bloomberg’s much earlier appearance will change that political calculus, perhaps making his candidacy less problematic to Republicans than Mr. Perot’s was. However, Mr. B will still be attractive to socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters. Notwithstanding pundits’ disdain, he is a serious factor.
Political sophistication also plays in this equation. Democrats rarely go for a third-party candidate — even one who seems to offer what they like on both social and fiscal issues. They are too smart, knowing their defection might cost their party the election. Republicans seem to lack such scruples or savvy. “My vote will make a statement,” is what I heard from folks who were mad at George H.W. Bush for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge in 1990. Great. Their “statement” let Bill and Hill sneak in the back door twice.
An independent like Mr. Perot or Mr. Bloomberg is the joker in the deck because each is basically his own party, not just the leader of one. (This is doubly true of billionaires, who are used to piping the tune.) No position papers, grassroots regulars or party platforms keep an independent from springing, at a moment’s notice, to fill any space he sees between the two parties.
Such a space, in this volatile era, is illegal immigration. Neither party currently is disposed to answer the concerns of a majority of the electorate on it.
In 2004, I predicted illegal immigration would become the dark horse of future elections and that some candidate would ride it to capture the space unoccupied by the major parties. I thought Hillary Clinton might be that candidate, as she appeared to be positioning herself as a “conservative” on illegal immigration.
Since that time, the war and the emergence of Sen. Barack Obama have intervened. Mrs. Clinton is slugging it out with Mr. Obama and John Edwards for the far-left “soul” of their party. All three seem aligned with the immigration “reform” coalition led by President Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy. Voter concerns about illegal immigration remain unanswered.
A fiscally conservative candidate who speaks to voters’ fears about illegal immigration would be formidable. His occupation of the political space on this issue would throw the game-board in the air. He might not only perturb the election. He might win it — turning the Clinton “insurance policy” into a thief who runs off with the family silver.
I don’t know if Mr. Bloomberg can be that candidate, or whether he possesses the political daring to oppose liberals, seize the illegals issue and exploit it to win the election. It all depends on how smart he is, how big his ego is, and how much he wants to be president.
All this will be clarified a year from now when the battle lines have been drawn for the most significant presidential contest in a generation. It will determine the future of the country for decades to come.
Author of a weekly column, “At Large,” in the Atlantic Highlands Herald, (www.ahherald.com).
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