As D.C. residents were preparing for, and then digging out from, the winter storm of the century, the already-volatile 2016 presidential race faced a potential storm of its own: the prospect of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, mounting an independent bid for the White House.
Now, these rumors have surfaced before — not only in this cycle, but in previous ones — so they ought to be taken with a truckload, rather than merely a grain, of salt. Still, in such a topsy-turvy cycle as this one, which has already been upended by the political aspirations of one New York billionaire, it is not so easy to dismiss the potential impact of another entering the race.
As an independent candidate, Bloomberg would face enormous structural difficulties to overcome. In many states, he’d need to gather a significant number of signatures merely to gain ballot access. That is normally a large enough impediment to any independent contender for the presidency, but Bloomberg — like Ross Perot before him — has the money to simply, in effect, purchase ballot access. However, in order to win, he’d not just have to get a plurality of the popular vote, but a majority of the Electoral College. In a three-way race that would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, regardless of how much money he spent.
However, even laying aside the structural challenges any independent presidential campaign faces, there are serious questions about Bloomberg’s political viability as an individual. The consistent theme of 2016 — to the extent there’s been one — has been populism. The two insurgent candidates, Donald Trump on the Republican side and Bernie Sanders for the Democrats, have tapped into two different strains of populism to fuel their candidacies.
This rightly concerns Bloomberg, as this populism poses a threat to his financial empire. It’s that very empire, though, that makes him possibly the very worst antidote to populism, on either the left or the right. Bloomberg’s policies over the years as mayor may have made him the model technocrat, but like technocrats everywhere, they’ve also made him detested by partisans on the left and the right. Liberals, while they might appreciate his support for gun control, will hate his embrace of Wall Street; conservatives will hate his embrace of nanny-state, big government policies in all areas.
This isn’t to imply, however, that Michael Bloomberg is a real moderate in the mold of, say, his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. He’s never truly been a proponent of small government in any sense of the term, and only really qualifies as a centrist in the political context of one of America’s largest cities. Rather than being a true moderate, he is a wealthy, egotistical political opportunist who wants to make sure the issues important to him aren’t ignored — and there’s one of those in the race already.
If Bloomberg seriously believes he has a path to victory in 2016, he is completely misunderstanding the current political zeitgeist of the country. In a race between Trump and Sanders, there might be a path for an independent to win — but not an independent who embraces Wall Street and big government. Fighting Trump and Sanders with Bloomberg would be like the British trying to halt the American Revolution by offering someone else as monarch instead of King George III. The electorate is not merely dissatisfied with any particular establishment candidate in either party, but with their ideas — or lack thereof. Defeating Trump and Sanders will require a new, more reasonable kind of populism, not just a new face for the establishment.