By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; C01
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg really doesn't mind denying, over and over again, that he harbors national ambitions.
"Well, it's very flattering, and in all fairness, if you didn't think it was flattering you should probably see a psychiatrist," Bloomberg said in a brief interview as he stepped out of the Four Seasons in Georgetown during a visit to Washington on Tuesday.
The 68-year-old, wearing a dark blue suit and burgundy tie, had just finished addressing the Wall Street Journal CEO Council, where he charmed a similarly power-suited audience with some patently impolitic Bloombergisms. About energy policy, he pronounced: "Nobody wants to hear it: We need a carbon tax." Regarding ill-spent homeland security funds: "No one's likely to attack a cornfield." And as for the bad economics of treating every disease, including prostate cancer in nonagenarians: "You're going to die."
The mayor cavalierly held forth on national issues, but when the Q&A session turned to whether he has national ambitions, he professed - again - a lack of interest.
"I have absolutely no skills to be secretary of the Treasury," he said, crossing his arms and suppressing a smile. And as for an independent candidacy for president, he swiveled in his leather chair and said such a third-party candidate could only hope to be a spoiler, because "party affiliation is so strong."
Outside the hotel, a couple of black Suburban SUVs with New York plates waited to drive him to the Capitol. As he talked and walked, delivering stock responses about how much he loved his job and how he would "find something else to do afterwards," his top political gun, Howard Wolfson, trudged a few paces behind him monitoring the discussion. And what about his aggressive political operatives and their long track record of perpetuating the very presidential speculation he so visibly enjoys knocking down?
"They don't have to do that," Bloomberg said with a shrug. "It's self-generating."
Like the death and taxes the mayor spoke of at the Four Seasons, Bloomberg-for-president speculation is now a certainty in American politics. After six years or so, this phenomenon no longer requires the whispers of Bloomberg's aides to carry it, though many can't help themselves. The spadework has been so thorough that routine lobbying trips to Washington and huddles with moderate senators are enough to jack up the speculation machine. The latest round came Wednesday, when the Huffington Post reported that a Bloomberg-Joe Scarborough ticket was in the works. This, of all outcomes, is not likely.
For many, many reasons, a Bloomberg bid is, as the mayor himself has said, improbable at best. The mayor likes to point out that he is a short Jewish divorced man with a girlfriend. He recently characterized new members of Congress as rubes who didn't hold passports and couldn't read. Ideologically, he agrees with President Obama on almost everything, except gay marriage, which Bloomberg champions, and expanded Wall Street regulation, which he opposes.
The global entrepreneur-turned-pol has no beef with China. And he often bristles at even the minor irritations of media coverage at City Hall. The notion of Bloomberg standing for hours in a grange hall in Dubuque, Iowa, fielding questions without blurting, "Get over it," would be a test of human endurance.
But all those detracting electoral data points are dwarfed by one important figure: $20 billion. That's roughly how much Bloomberg is personally worth, and he has shown no compunction in spending mind-boggling sums to win political office.
Even as reporters who have witnessed this electoral tease many times before - there has been an incessant stream since 2006, when the New York Observer first asked "Will Mike Run For President As Sane Perot?" - the headlines keep coming. The mayor's denials are proving meaningless (in 2002, he vetoed a bill that would have extended terms for some officials, only to seek their extension for himself in 2008), but the reporters who cover him have no choice. The mayor's ability to fund a full-scale presidential campaign if - and whenever - he so desires makes him impossible to ignore.
It is not only the media that are forced to play this game. The White House is extremely wary of Bloomberg's maneuvering, be it his national endorsement tour during the midterms, his political team's apparent efforts to position him well in the case of a potential opening, his slight of Obama in a conversation leaked by his friend Rupert Murdoch as the most "arrogant man" he had ever met. ("He remembers the conversation differently," Wolfson has said.) Even his sweeps through Washington raise alarms.
What has been true in the past is true now; all of this attention has a transactional value for Bloomberg. The speculation game is not just a vanity project; it gets him greater leverage in Washington for the issues he cares about. Present and former Bloomberg administration officials have long acknowledged as much, saying the Candidate Bloomberg chatter boosts the mayor's efforts to fight illegal guns, to push a more lenient immigration reform, to weigh in on whatever strikes his fancy.
For the mayor, there is simply no downside to the presidential speculation, until suddenly there is.
"The risk is that people find it irritating," said one former Bloomberg official, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to upset the mayor. "And perhaps reflective of boredom and lack of commitment to his current gig."
Until that time, everything Bloomberg and his political team do will be seen through the prism of presidential politics. And Bloomberg, being Bloomberg, is doing a lot.
During the last election cycle, Bloomberg took his private jet around the country endorsing candidates to burnish his third-way bona fides. The mayor has struck up a new issue-specific partnership with Murdoch, the owner of the enormously influential Fox News. In addition, the company he founded, Bloomberg LP, has poured millions into a new media enterprise in Washington, a Web site called Bloomberg Government. The site is run by Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg's charming and youthful version of Karl Rove, who has surreptitiously crafted each Bloomberg for President boomlet. (Bloomberg once gave Sheekey, a onetime chief of staff for the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, business cards that read "Kevin Sheekey, Covert Operations.")
In May, Sheekey hired Sarah Feinberg - former senior adviser to former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, special assistant to the president and the wife of White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer - to run the global communications of Bloomberg LP and act as spokeswoman for Bloomberg Government. A person familiar with Feinberg's thinking on the Bloomberg-for-president speculation said there is an understanding between her and her new employers that she is an Obama loyalist. This month, Jay Carson, who long worked for Bill and Hillary Clinton and recently stepped down as the first deputy mayor of Los Angeles, was brought on to run C40, an international Bloomberg-led group of mayors dedicated to curbing climate change.
All of this activity is on the West Wing's radar.
The White House has been careful to keep the mayor as happy as possible. In August, the vacationing president invited him for a golf outing on Martha's Vineyard. Officially, the administration says that coziness has nothing to do with staving off the monumental headache a Bloomberg candidacy would pose.
David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, said he took the mayor at his word that he had no interest in running. "If that changes, then it changes," Axelrod said. "But we are not calibrating our relationship based on that."
But speaking privately, administration officials allow that they agonize over Bloomberg's smoke signals. According to a senior White House official, there is a sense within the administration that they need to be mindful of the mayor and reach out to him when possible to work on issues he cares about. Other officials say they think the mayor's political aides are more interested in a candidacy than Bloomberg himself is.
With an unlimited bankroll, there is no incentive for his cadre of well-compensated consultants to pull the plug on the project. And the prospect of a 50-state Bloomberg campaign is enough to send all their kids and even a few nephews through college. Inside the political Bloomberg-plex, there's Wolfson, who was communications director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign; Josh Isay, whose political strategy work gets him a cut of the direct mail expenditures; pollster Doug Schoen, whose dialers have gotten to know the city's voters extensively; and ad man Bill Knapp, who also worked for Obama's 2008 campaign. Below these leaders, there are ranks of former deputies and consultants ready to boost Bloomberg when summoned.
As for Sheekey, while Wolfson has taken over his position as top City Hall operative, he is hardly out of the game. "Kevin would give up all the opportunities in the private sector to be in the White House with Bloomberg," said Gerald Rafshoon, a former Carter administration official who led a Draft Bloomberg effort in 2008, though he doubted that Sheekey could persuade Bloomberg to do it. "There's no doubt that a lot of people around Bloomberg want him to be president." Sheekey declined to comment for this article.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Suburbans rolled to the Capitol, where Bloomberg had meetings with moderate senators to seek federal financial support for sufferers of illnesses related to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bad weather forced the cancellation of his first appointment, with Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who will be sworn in at the end of the month as Illinois' junior senator and whom Bloomberg had endorsed in the campaign for Obama's former seat.
According to one source with knowledge of the political negotiations around the endorsements, who requested anonymity to discuss the talks, Bloomberg was clearly using a personal calculus to make his choices. According to the source, the mayor's political operation shot down one proposed endorsement of a past Bloomberg ally because the mayor had already thrown his support to "too many Democrats."
"The endorsement strategy was to endorse candidates from both parties that he thought would be in a position to work across party lines and move the national debate towards the center," said Wolfson, who monitored Bloomberg's Election Day scorecard closely. "It turned out to be a mix of both - that's the way chips fell."
The SUVs dropped Bloomberg off at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where he had an appointment with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). His security detail of linebacker-size cops ridiculed the Capitol's train system as something akin to a toy set, and Bloomberg's staff photographer and videographer paced a hallway. After about 20 minutes, the door opened, the photographer snapped a photo of the pair and Bloomberg and his entourage walked down to the Senate trains. The pictoral point was made, even if the sale wasn't. Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said merely that the senator is sympathetic to the Sept. 11 survivors, but also concerned about tax increases on certain businesses that are included in the mayor's proposal.
"Nice to see you," Bloomberg said to a few other senators, as the train doors slid open under the Capitol building. "You never know who you are going to run into here. Just do a good job." Bloomberg's entourage marched down to the Congressional Visitors Center, where a large portion of New York's congressional delegation crammed onto a stage for a news conference in support of the Sept. 11 health bill. Bloomberg walked to a door on the wing of the stage and checked out the scene. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was introducing one speaker after another.
"This is going to go on forever," Bloomberg said as he turned back from the door. "Good time to make a pit stop."
A few minutes later, Bloomberg made his entrance and delivered his speech. It was a nonpartisan appeal for the legislation.
"That's what I've come to Washington to say," he said.
As Bloomberg disappeared back into the cluster of taller politicians, each speaker made sure to pay deference to the mayor. Rep. Joe Crowley, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Queens and the Bronx, thanked Bloomberg for "lending his prestige to our nation's capital." Bloomberg snapped to attention whenever his name was uttered, but mostly he displayed his trademark signs of impatience. He rocked back on his heels and inspected the ceiling. He puffed his cheeks and exhaled toward the ground.
After the news conference, Bloomberg took a different train to the Russell Senate Office Building, where he met with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for half an hour. After the meeting, McCain called Bloomberg a "great guy" and explained why the Bloomberg for President engine keeps chugging.
"First of all, he did campaign for candidates around the country," said McCain, adding that with the political "dissatisfaction level as it is, it's a logical progression that there would be a third-party candidate."
Oh, and then there's the mayor's money.
"Look, he showed in his race for mayor that he is willing to spend it," McCain said. "He believes in that old saying: You can't take it with you."