Much of the coverage of Bloomberg’s potential candidacy has described it as a threat to Joe Biden, who is currently understood as the chief “moderate” in the race. But that underplays the complex ideological currents that could make Bloomberg’s candidacy such a challenge.
Before we go further, I should note that for years I have angrily condemned (with little apparent effect) the phenomenon of rich businesspeople running for elected office by saying “I’m a businessman, not a politician,” as though their lack of relevant experience is what qualifies them for the job. If you had a leaky pipe and somebody showed up at your house saying, “I’m an accountant, not a plumber; those guys can’t solve your problem because what you need is common-sense solutions to the water filling up your basement,” the last thing you’d let him do is start taking apart your plumbing.
Our current president offers a kind of horror-cartoon instantiation of this idea, but there are plenty of less dramatic examples of businesspeople who either ran abysmal campaigns (which is where many of their ambitions run aground) or got into office only to find that governing is, whaddya know, hard.
Bloomberg, however, was in many ways the exception to this rule. Even though he did some extremely controversial things as mayor of New York (such as expanding the use of stop-and-frisk), even his critics acknowledge that he was an effective nuts-and-bolts manager in what some people regard as the second most difficult job in America, bringing some sorely needed efficiencies to the operation of the city’s government.
But while there are certainly things he’ll tout from his time as mayor, in a presidential primary voters aren’t looking for management skills as much as they are agreement on issues and a particular vision for where the party should go. You could take Bloomberg’s unusual combination of issue positions, put some into one box and others into another, and end up with something you’d call “moderate” or “centrist.” The other way to look at it, however, is that whoever you are, you’re going to find something about him to dislike.
As David Dayen wrote in 2016 when Bloomberg was considering a run, “An anti-teachers’-union, anti-gun, pro-nanny state, pro-Wall Street, pro-stop-and-frisk, pro-inequality, pro-immigration, pro-surveillance, pro-Iraq War neoconservative is almost surgically designed to repel practically every American voter on some level.”
If Bloomberg does decide to run, I’d predict that questions of ideology are going to bedevil him. He has indicated that he’s contemplating a bid because he doesn’t think the field is strong enough to beat Trump, but he’ll have to articulate a rationale for his candidacy that goes deeper than that.
Or think about it this way: What does Bloomberg think the problem is, and what does he think the solution is? Elizabeth Warren, for instance, thinks the problem is an economic and political system captured by the wealthy and powerful; her solution is deep structural change to dismantle their power. Joe Biden thinks the problem is polarization and partisanship, and the solution is his brand of problem-solving based on good faith and strong cross-partisan friendship.
Bloomberg may already have answers to those questions, even if he hasn’t made them clear to the public. And it’s even possible that his complex collection of issue stands could, in a general election, remain fuzzy enough for voters that they’d just view him as “moderate.”
But to get there, he’ll have to win over a Democratic primary electorate that may be looking for someone whose ideological beliefs look a little more like theirs.