The wonderful thing about America is that she always surprises you, just when you least expect it. A week before the start of the primaries for the November 2016 presidential election, we were almost resigned to the fact that there would be a highly unusual fight between an uncouth, outrageous and populist billionaire, and an establishment candidate who is widely disliked, even by those who think she is the most competent candidate for the post. That was until leaks in this weekend’s New York Times revealed that a party pooper might well enter the running.
Independent and Rich
There have been several occasions, notably in 2012, when billionaire Michael Bloomberg considered trying his luck in the race for the White House. But after taking a quick look around the track and consulting the polls, the former mayor of New York City pulled out on each occasion. Deciding, even before the primaries, that it was not worth investing his time, money and — above all — his reputation in the race.
Most of the electorate in Manhattan has great memories of Bloomberg, even if his impression is more mixed in Soho, Brooklyn and Harlem. In other words, the billionaire is a strong man and an excellent manager — but there is no love lost between him and minorities or the marginalized, and certainly not between him and small-time crooks or serious offenders. What is more, this 73-year-old is extremely rich — to the tune of $35 billion — which in the United States, unlike some other countries, is far from being a handicap.
The Republican Choice: A Provocative or an Ultra-Conservative Candidate?
Bloomberg seems to have taken the view that this year the stars favor a candidate like him. They favor someone active in civil society, but with no ties to either political party. Although Bloomberg was formerly a member of one party, and tempted by the other, he is a man from the middle ground who may benefit from the profligacy of the traditional groupings.
On one side is the Republican Party. Against all predictions, it may choose another billionaire, Donald Trump. Even before the primaries, he has proven to be a candidate who, for want of policies, has as his only weapon the ability to wield provocation and insult. As things stand, the Grand Old Party’s only alternative to this ultra-populist choice is a candidate from the tea party movement — Ted Cruz. His electoral base is essentially evangelical, anti-abortion, anti-equal-marriage and in fact hostile to all social progress.
Hillary Clinton’s Baggage
As for the Democratic Party candidate, Hillary Clinton, she has two challenges. It had been thought that given her background she was on a fast track to at least gain the nomination at the convention, if not to carry on to the White House. However, she is bogged down by a history of disregarding some important rules in her various roles as first lady, senator and, above all, as secretary of state. For example, the rule that says you should never try to twist or hide the truth, even when it is embarrassing. These are rules that, in the United States, should not be broken.
She is also weakened by the pugnacity of another atypical candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who by American standards is almost left-wing. Despite this, his charisma, skill and aggression toward the establishment candidate have worked wonders in debates, to the point that he is the favorite to win the first primaries, and political experts will not discount the possibility that he could get much further. And even if he does not win the nomination, he will have weakened Hillary to the extent that her chances of winning the general election will have been diminished.
The Wariness of Middle America
Michael Bloomberg wants to benefit from this double window of opportunity. In his favor is his fortune, which he says will enable him to devote a billion dollars toward his campaign without asking anyone else to contribute. Also in his favor are his three successive mandates as mayor of New York City. These mandates began four months after 9/11 and lasted for twelve years, during which time crime fell, the city’s economy got back on an even keel and public transport became efficient. As for the city’s budget, it went from a deficit of $3 billion to a surplus of $2.4 billion.
But the former mayor will have against him the attacks that Donald Trump and his ilk will no doubt have up their sleeves. You can imagine the low blows, about how he acquired his fortune and the way he built his empire in economic and financial data and communications. Michael Bloomberg will also have against him the fact that he is well known for his talent in New York, but little known in Ohio or Kentucky. Middle America, like all countries, suffers from jealous provincialism.
If he runs as an independent — he will no doubt make a decision after Super Tuesday in March — he will need to overcome the curse that says no candidate, from Teddy Roosevelt to Ross Perot, has ever been elected president of the United States without the blessing of one of the two big parties that have always driven American politics.