June 28, 2007
It was hardly a surprise to New Yorkers that Mayor Michael Bloomberg dropped out of the Republican party last week. He had dropped in to it only six years ago, not because he bought the ideological package but just because he wanted to be mayor.
Assessing his chances as a Democrat with no previous political experience, he cut his ties with the party in 2001, registered as a Republican, and let four seasoned New York politicians follow the customary Democratic pattern of eating each other up in the primaries. Meanwhile, he outspent and outspoke his lone Republican primary opponent, the tired political hack Herman Badillo, and won handily. He then sat back and watched the two surviving Democrats, Fernando Ferrer and Mark Green, go at it again in a runoff.
Despite a fractured and financially drained Democratic opposition and his targeted, multimillion-dollar campaign, his was a very long shot. In June of 2001 he’d gotten a tepid endorsement from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ("Yes, sure, I think he’s qualified to be mayor," Giuliani said at the time; "he has a lot of managerial experience."), but after two terms of dictatorial rule, the mayor had so polarized the city that his endorsement might actually have been Bloomberg’s kiss of death. The dynamic changed after Tuesday, September 11 (the scheduled date of the primary, subsequently delayed for two weeks). Now a civic hero, Giuliani re-endorsed Bloomberg, which did the trick - though not by much. In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans four to one, he barely eked past Green in the general election.
Four years later, things were the same, only different. As the primaries approached, Ferrer and Green were eating each other up yet again, but by then Bloomberg was far above the fray. This time it was Ferrer that he beat, and by a landslide. Even in the Bronx, where Ferrer had been a popular borough president, and among Latinos, his ethnic base, his showing was unexpectedly weak. Mayor Mike, as the tabloids were now affectionately calling him, had proven himself to the people.
Rudy’s dismissive comment in early 2001 was inadvertently prescient. Bloomberg’s managerial experience turned the city around. He eliminated an inherited $6.4 billion deficit by streamlining city government and boldly, and un-Republicanly, raising taxes. He furthered Giuliani’s success in reducing crime but did it coolly and collaboratively, without the abrasion and confrontation of his predecessor. He took control of the Board of Education, something that previous mayors had found impossible, and made substantial gains in reforming the bureaucracy-bound public school system, actually improving education in the process. He committed city resources to affordable housing, sparking a building boom here in the Bronx and in the other boroughs. And showing his aesthetic side, he invited the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to mount, at their own expense, "The Gates in Central Park," a project that previous mayors had scorned for 20 years. Those 7,500 orange banners packed the hotels in the bleak midwinter of 2005, filling city coffers with tax money and reinvigorating the worldwide tourist trade.
Like all good managers, he achieved his goals by hiring the most talented people for his team instead of doling out plums to his cronies. And like the best of managers, he did everything with elan, an appealing, level-headed optimism that has brought almost the whole city on board. Astonishing in the bruising world of New York politics, he has his critics but hardly an enemy.
He’s even defused Al Sharpton.
No wonder some people are thinking president. After the sinister secrecy and administrative incompetency of the Bush years, and the prolonged partisan deadlock in Congress, it is most refreshing to imagine, if only for an instant, a national leader who is straightforward, creative, non-ideological, practical, and collaborative, with a crackerjack cabinet of non-partisan experts and a national agenda with the nation in mind.
It is the overwhelming disgust of party pettiness and the longing for a politics of principle from a no-nonsense pragmatist that may make a Bloomberg bid realistic. Outsider candidates of recent memory - George Wallace, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader, yes, but also party dissidents like Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean - ignited enthusiasm from a broad spectrum of Americans searching for an alternative, but they all failed because there was something vaguely or plainly kooky about them. There is nothing kooky about Michael Bloomberg.
And nothing quixotic, either. This is a man with an uncanny sense of political timing. He’s like a star running-back, able to see a hole in the line and shoot right through it to the goal. And because he can finance an entire national campaign all by himself, he can afford to do just as he did in 2001: sit back and let the party candidates eat each other up. If he sees a hole after the February primaries, he may make a run for it. (This must be scaring the dress off Rudy, who was recently beaten by Bloomberg 56 to 29 percent in a poll of New Yorkers by the Daily News as to who was the more effective mayor.)
Meanwhile, he will go on being mayor of New York, pushing his long-term proposals for a safer and greener city, setting out broader ideas on domestic and foreign policy for his now wider audience, and building a coalition of notable backers dissatisfied with their parties’ inflexibility and impotence. Judging from the warm words and the cover of Time magazine from last week,
Arnold Schwarzenegger may be one of the first on board.
It remains to be seen if Mayor Mike will play as well in Ohio and Alabama as he’s playing in New York. He hardly knows that himself at this point. But his detachment from party apparatus - and a net worth of $5 billion or so - will at the very least allow him the freedom to shape the national discourse uniquely, and positively.