Apparently former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is thinking of running for president as a third-party candidate. The New York Times reports that Bloomberg commissioned a private poll to see how he would fare if the Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton and the Republicans nominate Donald Trump, which seems likely (though not certain) at this point. Although Bloomberg hasn’t released the poll’s results – either because they weren’t favorable or were so promising that he’s waiting for the perfect moment, depending on how you look at it – there is an inarguable logic to him waging a third-party candidacy in 2016.
Regardless of one’s own partisan and ideological inclinations, it’s hard to deny that both Clinton and Trump are incredibly polarizing to the general electorate. Indeed, even the candidates most likely to stage an upset – i.e., Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side and Ted Cruz among the Republicans – are equally divisive and controversial. In such an election, Bloomberg could cast himself as a nonpartisan centrist, a man who has always supported gay rights, fights for a woman’s right to choose and for stricter gun control measures, and yet simultaneously wants to deregulate big businesses, slash taxes, and strengthen America’s military.
While it’s unlikely that Bloomberg could appeal to all segments of the voting public, he seems primed to position himself as a palatable moderate in a race in which both parties nominate candidates who are reviled by large sections of the country. The question is whether he would actually make a good president if elected.
The answer, unequivocally, is no.
We can start with Bloomberg’s out-of-touch attitude toward the American working class. “In Bloomberg’s 12 years in office, his personal fortune increased sevenfold, from $4.5 to $32 billion, while 46 percent of the city’s residents now live in or near poverty,” writes Steven Wishnia of Talking Points Memo. “If Manhattan were an independent nation, its income inequality would rank with South Africa’s and Namibia’s.” In the waning years of his mayoralty, Bloomberg fought against a living wage law that would have required employers receiving at least $1 million in city aid to pay their workers either $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without.
He also exacerbated law enforcement mistreatment of racial minorities by appointing Ray Kelly as Police Commissioner, who proceeded to implement a “stop and frisk” policy that disproportionately targeted non-whites for searching and oversaw widespread surveillance of the city’s Muslim community. Finally, there is Bloomberg’s clear disdain for following the rules that apply to non-billionaires, as evidenced by his successful effort to have the city council temporarily suspend term limits so he could serve an extra four years.
On a deeper level, though, Bloomberg’s problem isn’t merely being insufficiently sympathetic to low-income and non-white Americans. It is that, as a third-party presidential candidate, he would automatically assume the symbolic role of national iconoclast. For 163 years, every single one of America’s presidents has hailed from either the Democratic or Republican parties; before 1853, we still chose our presidents from one of two major parties, albeit with some differences from the ones known today (i.e., we had Federalists, Democratic-Republicans, National Republicans, and Whigs). By virtue of attempting to buck that precedent, Bloomberg would seemingly be a man willing to fight the status quo.
Yet as his ideology makes clear, he is a candidate of the status quo. Aside from his unwillingness to commit to either of America’s major parties, there is nothing even remotely anti-establishment about the man. Say what you will about Trump and Cruz, but both of them are openly disliked by large segments of the Republican Party establishment. Similarly, say what you will about Clinton and Sanders, but both of them support economic and social policies that fight against the wealthy interest groups that have dominated our nation for so long.
A Bloomberg third-party campaign, by contrast, would be the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothes. Even his ideological message is an inversion of American norms; third-party candidates have, traditionally, represented ideas perceived as too extreme for the major parties. Bloomberg, on the other hand, would be a self-declared moderate denouncing the perceived extremism to his left and right from the major parties.
In short, if Bloomberg emerges as a viable third-party alternative in the 2016 presidential election, his candidacy will severely distort our collective understanding of the political world we inhabit today. There are real problems that need to be addressed – income inequality, racial and sexual discrimination, an entire generation cast adrift by an economy that seems to have no use for them – and they require a serious candidate who is willing to openly and aggressively confront them. In Bloomberg, we would have a champion of the status quo who presents himself as a bold game-changer. Frankly, if our next president needs to be an agent of the same, I’d at least prefer it that he present himself as such.