BULLY FOR BLOOMBERG
Come on In, Mike. It Could Be a Wild Ride.
When Michael Bloomberg decided to stop pretending to be a Republican last week, all the talk that the New York mayor might launch a third-party bid for the White House gave me some jarring flashbacks. I helped run the last such serious independent race, for Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot in 1992, and it didn't go that well, as you may recall.
Such campaigns are incredibly tough to win, but things could be different this time. To paraphrase the late senator Lloyd Bentsen's immortal line in the 1988 vice presidential debates: "I know Ross Perot; I served with Ross Perot; and Mayor Mike, you're no Ross Perot." And that's good news.
Last week convinced me that Bloomberg is planning to run (not that I have any insider information), but I honestly don't know whether he could win. It's highly unlikely that he could garner 270 electoral votes, but there's more to it than that. A self-funded Bloomberg presidential run would make this already incredibly unpredictable campaign even more incredible and unpredictable. It could also turn out to be a good thing for American democracy.
Bloomberg's week of dominating the media demonstrates just how eager the country is to turn the page on the Bush presidency. Bloomberg is one of the nation's most popular and effective politicians -- and also one of the least ideological. While a divisive president and a wobbly Congress languish with some of their lowest approval ratings ever, the rock-solid mayor's approval rating has soared to more than 70 percent. In the latest survey of New Yorkers, 77 percent of black voters approve of Bloomberg, as do 80 percent of whites and 63 percent of Hispanics. Not bad numbers for anyone -- and more than enough to tempt an ambitious, risk-taking entrepreneur onto the national stage.
But with 18 major candidates now running, and Fred Thompson, Al Gore and Newt Gingrich toying with the idea of joining them, what difference would one multibillionaire independent make? More to the point: Didn't we play this game 15 years ago?
Well, not quite. To find out why, it's helpful to look back at that last plausible independent candidate, another man who had real money and an ability to excite voters. The country's political mood in 1992 was similar to today's. President George H.W. Bush was the object of a case of voter remorse almost as bad as the one now plaguing his son; in 1992, a Gallup poll found Bush's approval rating at its lowest ever, a dismal 29 percent. People had lost confidence in the economy and thought the president didn't understand their lives. Conservatives were abandoning Bush in droves. The country was tired of the partisan bickering in Washington and didn't see a dime's worth of difference between the two major parties.
The Democrats had a Clinton leading their ticket, but Bill had been badly hurt early in the campaign by accusations of an affair with Gennifer Flowers. A follow-up story claiming that he had "dodged the draft" to avoid the Vietnam War caused Clinton even greater damage.
Then onto the scene, via Larry King, rode Perot, the "Little Big Man" from Texas, looking under the hood of the nation's problems and warning of the "giant sucking sound" of lost American jobs.
That's where I came in. I signed on as campaign manager because the early Perot candidacy was unlike anything I had ever seen in my many decades in politics. It started as a grass-roots movement, fueled by disaffected citizens who thought Perot offered a real alternative to business-as-usual in Washington.
Sometimes, though, you can be too much of a maverick. More than 5 million volunteers called Perot's 800 number and offered to help. But Perot wouldn't spend any money organizing them, and he wouldn't let his campaign make contact with them. Instead, their names were put on computer cards and stuffed, unused, into a storage closet. "You just leave the volunteers alone," he'd tell me. "They'll know what to do." Unfortunately, they didn't. And their daily pleas for direction went unheeded -- at Ross's insistence.
Not that people on the outside knew that. In June 1992, amazingly, Perot led in a national public opinion poll, with support from 39 percent of voters (vs. 31 percent for the wounded Bush and 25 percent for the limping Clinton). No previous independent or third-party candidate had ever placed second -- much less first -- in nearly six decades of nationwide Gallup presidential polling.
But Perot didn't understand the ups and downs of a political campaign. He didn't want to deal with media, policy advisers or campaign experts. He also didn't want to spend his money, even though he had promised me he would pour $150 million into the campaign. Instead, he rejected every budget item, including millions targeted for all-important television advertising. "I'll just go talk to the people on 'Larry King,' " he would tell me.