»  National Review Online

September 28th, 2006

  Empire Election

[Two notes to this piece:  (1) Wally Fekula tells me he was not Mike Bloomberg's escort, "It was by happenstance that I met Mike by the elevator." Sorry, Wally.  (2) Several Randians have objected to being called "Randians," on the grounds that it makes them sound like a cult. They prefer "Objectivist." Sorry, Ran … er, Objectivists.]

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Giving Mrs. Clinton the benefit of the carpetbagger doubt, that is, and taking Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg as the other two. Yes, it might come down to this. Your choices for Presidential candidate in November 2008 might be three gun-controlling, abortion-supporting, gay-friendly, illegal-immigrant-amnestying northeasterners, two of them high-tax, welfare-state, social-engineering, affirmative-action liberals.

I don't say this will necessarily happen. Nobody knows what the 2008 line-up will look like. A British Prime Minister once remarked that a week is a long time in politics, and he was not mistaken. Two years is a hundred times that long, and aces are wild at this point.

My three-New-Yorkers scenario is a thing that could happen, though. Among the attempts at prediction I've seen, I'd rate it in the top five, maybe even the top three. So let's just explore, for the fun of it.

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My old friend Wally Fekula claims the distinction of having been the last person to shake Mike Bloomberg's hand as Bloomberg made his way out of Salomon Brothers in 1981, after being fired from that noble institution.

Terminations on Wall Street are brusque affairs, a tradition brought up from the trading floors, where brusqueness is essential. A trader with a grudge against his firm — the kind of grudge you nurse when you've just been fired, for example — could do great damage in a very short time if left alone and unattended at a computer terminal. So the drill is, you are given the bad news, then watched carefully as you empty the personal contents of your desk into a cardboard box. Then you are escorted to the elevator.

Wally was Mike Bloomberg's escort. As Wally tells it: "He was standing there in the elevator with the cardboard box in his arms, looking like a schoolboy who'd just got expelled for smoking in the john. [N.B.: Bloomberg is 5ft 7in and lightly built. He was 39 years old at this point.] I said: 'Goodbye then, Mike.' He said: 'Goodbye, Wally,' and the elevator doors closed [Wally does the elevator-door-closing with his hands]. And I thought to myself: Well, there's a guy who's going nowhere. That's the last we'll hear of Mike Bloomberg."

Wally doesn't feel bad about underestimating Bloomberg. A great many other people have done the same. Me, for example. And then there was Bloomberg's $10m golden handshake. A lot of us — me, for sure — after being fired at age 39 with a $10m check to soothe the pain, would have bought a nice house and a boat and retired to some quiet seaside place to practice deep-sea fishing, read Trollope, and listen to Wagner. Not our Mike. He used his check to start a market-information firm that became Bloomberg L.P. Now, a quarter century later, he is one of the world's richest men, with a personal fortune of billions-with-a-"b." He is also Mayor of New York City, having been elected to two consecutive terms. Wally Fekula, who thought he'd never hear of Bloomberg again when those elevator doors closed, is paying city taxes to Mike Bloomberg's administration. So it goes.

As regards the reason for Bloomberg having got fired from Solly in 1981, the general opinion around the firm, which had just come under new management, was that Bloomberg had given the incoming directors the impression that he knew how to run the firm better than they did. His opinion on this point might very well have been correct. He had been with Salomon fifteen years, and had been made partner. He had a much better understanding of the Information Technology revolution then just beginning to sweep Wall Street than had the average investment banker (who had none whatsoever). And he was, everyone agreed, very, very smart.

And now there is talk, and there are signs, of Mike Bloomberg running for President on an independent ticket, using his own money, which is certainly adequate for the purpose. When I first heard about this, I smiled. A left-liberal new Yorker, a secular Jew, running for President! The Pataki fantasy-candidacy is risible enough, but really! Then I remembered Wally's stories and dropped the smile. Whatever you think of Bloomberg, he's still awfully smart, and a man to be taken seriously.

What will the U.S.A. think of Mike Bloomberg if it gets a good long look at him? Well, there will be some personality issues. I have never myself been in Mike Bloomberg's presence, but I know people that have, and reports are not good. As a dinner-table guest, I am told, Bloomberg will listen with visible impatience to opinions offered by other guests. When they're through, he'll say "Let's get real," and proceed to deliver his own opinion as if it was Newton's Laws of Motion. This is not an uncommon trait among sensationally successful people (to put it mildly), but it isn't going to play well in TV debates. Nor is the Bloomberg voice, which has an oddly lispy, whiny, feminine quality to it (though Bloomberg is perfectly heterosexual), and a persistent note of condescension.

And then there are the positions. The mayor is referred to by New York conservatives, all seventeen of us, as Nurse Bloomberg. This is not Juliet's nurse we are talking about, either — more like this one. At the time of writing, the mayor's latest proposal is to hand out city cash to poor people who can prove they have eaten their greens, taken their medication, and made their beds. This is, as the New York Post said in an editorial, "pure nanny-statism." But then, nanny-statism is what Bloomberg does. It is the natural cast of his mind. The purpose of laws, in the Bloomberg philosophy, is not to safeguard property and preserve liberty, it is to make people behave in the manner approved by governmental and judicial elites. Strictly for their own good, of course.

Is this what America wants? You can make a case — in fact the Randians have made it for you — that if our voting behavior is anything to go by, it actually is quite close to what we want. According to these folk, real conservatism — a conservatism of maximum personal autonomy, vigorous capitalism, and minimal government power, is dead in the U.S.A., and deader now than it was when Bill Clinton left office. Liberals want the government to make us virtuous because we shall then advance more quickly towards the radiant future of perfect equality, harmony, and goodness that is socialism's eternal promise. The neocons with their "compassionate conservatism" want to make us virtuous because that is God's will, and hang the expense. (Who's going to quibble over a few dollars when we're doing the Lord's work?) Practically nobody any more thinks that our own personal virtue is our own damn business, or that there should be any limit to the spending of public money in noble causes.

On this rather fatalistic point of view, which I think has a lot to be said for it, there really isn't much to choose between Bloomberg's shoveling our money into the pockets of the virtuous poor (or those sufficiently skilled at gaming the system to pass as such) and George W. Bush's shoveling our money into "faith-based initiatives" and sinkholes of social-engineering crackpottery like the Department of Education (whose budget has grown by a hundred percent since Bush took office).

Well, perhaps there is something to choose: On the evidence of his stewardship of New York City, Bloomberg's version of nanny-statism might be cheaper than Bush's. Though he is no fiscal tightwad, the straitened circumstances of post-9/11 New York City obliged Bloomberg to think hard about public revenues and expenditures. If George W. Bush has ever engaged in such thinking, he has done so without leaving the merest trace of evidence.

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If what I have just said is right, Bloomberg is not such a preposterous Presidential candidate. All that applies a fortiori to Rudy Giuliani. The case for Giuliani was made with great force and clarity by Deroy Murdock in the September 2006 issue of The American Spectator.

While prominent Republicans can give more conservative speeches than Giuliani, one would have to reach back to Ronald Reagan for a leader who has implemented more policies dear to the right.

Indeed, Giuliani has always described himself proudly as a Reaganite. As Deroy Murdock observes, and as our own Kate O'Beirne spelled out at length in the August 7 issue of National Review, Giuliani is handicapped to some degree in seeking the votes of social conservatives by his views on abortion, gay rights, immigration, and — most especially — gun control. These are considerable, but not insuperable, obstacles to him getting the Republican nomination. If he none the less gets it, and ends up as the Republican candidate in a field where Mrs. Clinton is the Democratic candidate and Mike Bloomberg is running as an independent, Rudy will, by default, be the conservative candidate.

It could happen. This is a possible Presidential field for 2008: Hillary Clinton (D), Rudy Giuliani (R), and Michael Bloomberg (I). A good-works-equals-socialism Methodist in a marriage of political convenience, a lax libertarian Catholic on his third wife, having divorced the other two, and a once-divorced not-very-observant Jew with a live-in girlfriend! This might be an election social conservatives will just want to sit out.

How would the country vote? That of course depends on events. As everyone says when you mention Rudy, another big terrorist strike would raise his stock, because of how well he responded to the last one. Absent that, and other things being equal, the main question would be whether Bloomberg would attract away more Clinton voters, or more Giuliani voters.

That's not an easy thing to figure. A Clinton voter attracted to Bloomberg would be one with unhappy recollections of Mrs. Clinton's past, or repelled by her relentless, conviction-free political calculations and re-positionings. Nanny-stater Bloomberg may be, but he is a sincere nanny-stater. A Giuliani voter attracted to Bloomberg would be one repelled by Rudy's rather … forthright style, and record of temper flare-ups, or by his unattractive marital record, or by the Reaganism he'd be pitching to conservatives. If the War on Terror is a factor, Rudy owns it. If the Iraq/Afghanistan wars are, Rudy is still strong, but Bloomberg, whose views on the wars are largely unknown, might stake out territory to Mrs. Clinton's left, and strip off votes there. My best guess would be a repeat of 1992, with Rudy in the role of Bill Clinton, Mrs. Clinton playing George Bush Sr., and Bloomberg as Ross Perot.

Speaking personally, if I'm going to be made to eat my greens, I'd prefer it was by a tax-averse, social-libertarian, law'n'order Reaganite with a mild gun-control fetish, than by a socialist-feminist nag with a shady past, or a limousine virtucrat who equates reality, as in "Let's get real," with his own opinions. Abortion and gay rights don't weigh enough to swing my vote. On gun control, I'll trust the NRA to take care of our Second Amendment rights as capably as they have always done in the past, under administrations of every color. On immigration, I believe that by 2008 the tide will be running so strong for enforcement and restriction that no politician, or Congress, who tries to resist it will be credible with the public. On pretty much everything else, I agree with Rudy. Three New Yorkers? I'll take the one who was born there.