Mike Bloomberg’s entry into the 2020 Democratic presidential field is clearly the expression of a long-held, thwarted ambition. As early as 2007, the former mayor had woefully said that America was never going to elect a “short, divorced, Jewish billionaire” as commander in chief.
Imagine his consternation when Donald Trump — one of the less-wholesome members of the Manhattan rich guys’ club — seized the office through pure moxie. Bloomberg must have gnashed his teeth over Don’s victory, surely thinking that, by over-analyzing the situation, he had cost himself the seat that he was uniquely qualified for.
And there is no question that Bloomberg is qualified to be president — certainly more so than anyone else in the Democratic field. His leadership of New York City was one of the most successful mayoralties in modern American history, mostly because of his nonpartisan, “whatever-works” approach to management.
Bloomberg wisely continued the public-safety policies of his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, boosting investment in data-driven law enforcement and expanding the use of proactive policing, ultimately driving the number of homicides below one per day for the first time in 50 years.
He also cut the teachers union’s stranglehold on public education by centralizing control of the schools under the mayor’s office — and was ruthless about closing failing schools and encouraging a climate of excellence through choice.
He also promoted New York City as a place to do business. Bloomberg was a relentless promoter and pushed a pro-growth agenda that rattled activists even as it opened opportunities for everyone — from native New Yorkers to tech entrepreneurs to immigrant small-business owners. His development of the far West Side and the Technion-Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island, not to mention Governor’s Island and Willets Point (still in progress), will change the shape of New York City for the next century.
Bloomberg ran New York City almost autocratically, with a structurally weak, compliant City Council that rubber-stamped his initiatives. With so much power, and a sense of unquestioned authority sharpened by running a privately owned company bearing his name, he could be cranky.
His efforts to ban large sodas annoyed New Yorkers, who tend to be forgiving about people’s personal vices. His finger-wagging ads about teenage pregnancy — which were entirely sensible — seemed like he was shaming single mothers, and he had to take them down. The tricky way he arranged a third term for himself, by bribing the council with extra terms for them, too, was a naked power-grab.
But he was effective as an executive, and that is more than can be said for any of his rivals for the Democratic nomination. The truth — tragic for him, comic for his critics — is that his window of opportunity to become president is probably closed.
Bloomberg’s appeal is as a nonpartisan, solutions-oriented technocrat. That approach might have worked for him in 2008, when both eventual major-party nominees stressed their openness to working across the political aisle to solve the financial crisis. But it’s hard to see where that approach leaves Bloomberg today.
Analysts and common people alike agree that the partisan divide is stark, and the political culture is poisonous. Americans dread Thanksgiving gatherings where family and friends tiptoe anxiously across a minefield of opinion, and imprecations like “racist” or “Nazi” are tossed around casually. How can Bloomberg, who made a virtue of switching his party affiliation like he changed undershirts, explain to the most fervent members of the Democratic base that he was only a GOPer for the sake of political expediency?
The response — tepid at best — to his recent apology for the use of stop-and-frisk to get guns off the street isn’t a good sign for Bloomberg’s candidacy. Far from burying the issue of alleged racial bias in policing, his confession will only prompt more questions about it, as well as demands for further mea culpas for his other policies.
Bloomberg has the money to disrupt the Democratic field and challenge Joe Biden for the position of dominant centrist. But by disavowing one of his key achievements as mayor, he has significantly undercut his claim to lead. Like it or not, Mike, your time has passed.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
Seth Barron is associate editor of City Journal and director of the NYC Initiative at the Manhattan Institute.
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