An Oval Office for Mayor Mike?

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 31, 2006

NEW YORK -- If you should happen to go to dinner here, the talk will inevitably turn to any one of the many presidential candidates the Empire State has to offer. Foremost among them, of course, is Hillary Clinton, but worthy of mention are Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki, Republicans both. Increasingly, though, the hum is also about the politically audacious Michael Rubens Bloomberg, 44th on Forbes magazine's list of the richest Americans and, as it happens, the mayor of this fair city. He might also be running.

I say "might" because Bloomberg has gone from the firm "no" he offered me some months ago to a more intriguing "I'm considering it" that he offered someone I talked with recently. Indeed, among this city's moneyed, journalistic (not, alas, the same thing), entertainment, financial and other sorts of elites, there are always one or two at the table who say, with great solemnity, that they happen to know Bloomberg will indeed run for president as an independent. Knowing my duty, I called the Bloomberg people and asked if that is the case. By press time, as they say in the movies, I had yet to hear back. I take that as a wobbly affirmation.

The prospect of a Bloomberg presidential candidacy delights me. I grant you that just last week I was excited about Barack Obama, but that is because I think the more the merrier -- especially if they are truly bright, unencumbered by a need to defend the Iraq war and willing to look at things afresh. This is particularly the case with Bloomberg, who has an unorthodox approach to politics. He says what he means and he means what he says and he tells it like it is. This string of cliches is, in fact, the truth.

Here is the quintessential Bloomberg story: In July, in the midst of a heat wave, the power failed in certain sections of Queens. For politicians, a power failure is such a no-brainer that even the alcoholically stupefied show up to denounce Con Ed, call for an investigation and demand that its chairman resign. Bloomberg, though, did no such thing. He supported the utility and its chief executive, noting that it was awfully hot as well for the Con Ed workers and that they were apparently doing the best they could. Jaws dropped all over the city.

Officially, Bloomberg is the Republican mayor of New York. But he's really the Democrat he used to be or, more to the point, the independent he would become if he chose to run for president. Running as neither a Republican nor a Democrat would be a nearly insurmountable hurdle, but Bloomberg is very, very rich and not at all afraid to use his money. He personally financed his two mayoral campaigns -- nearly $74 million in 2001, $84 million in 2005 -- and he has said that spending half a billion dollars on a presidential race is, if that's what it takes, easily doable. Ross Perot, not as rich as Bloomberg and clearly deranged, got 19 percent of the vote in 1992. Bloomberg, who's sane, could do better.

Is the country ready for a billionaire divorced Jew with a penchant for the blunt quote and a habit of getting his own way? Probably not. But there is no doubt that Bloomberg has done a terrific job managing New York, and there is no doubt that the federal government is a mismanaged mess -- so dysfunctional and weird that grown men will defend the appropriation of money for bridges that go virtually nowhere. Wasting money has become the functional equivalent of gutsy politics -- the willingness to defend the fiscally obscene. Bloomberg, maybe John McCain as well, would do something about that. One hopes.

A Bloomberg presidential candidacy would certainly complicate life for Hillary Clinton, not to mention Giuliani, and it's a long shot as an independent or third-party candidacy in any case. (Perot got nary an electoral college vote.) There are vast stretches of the country where you can't get a good pastrami sandwich, sarcasm is loathed, candor is confused with rudeness, advocacy of gun control is hardly appreciated and a crusade against trans fats might be confused with lunacy. For Bloomberg, a presidential campaign would be an enormously expensive tilting at a windmill, and no one should be surprised if, as he has said, he devotes his apres-mayoralty life to giving away his fortune.

But Bloomberg drops too many hints at dinner parties, says no with a total lack of conviction and has the gambler's yen to roll the dice for major stakes. Once before, he ignored sage advice, switched political parties and ran for mayor. Will he do something similar now? I don't know. Is he considering it? You bet.

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