New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced yesterday that he has dropped his tenuous affiliation with the Republican Party, becoming an independent. This news has the political junkies all atwitter, as it now appears the 2008 presidential race has a bona fide dark horse candidate. Bloomberg made no accompanying announcement that he has indeed entered the race, but he has spent a good deal of his time the past few months raising his national profile, and rhetorically challenging Republican and Democratic leadership in Washington.
A statement by the mayor posted on the city’s website stated, “A nonpartisan approach has worked wonders in New York: we’ve balanced budgets, grown our economy, improved public health, reformed the school system and made the nation’s safest city even safer.
“Any successful elected executive knows that real results are more important than partisan battles and that good ideas should take precedence over rigid adherence to any particular political ideology. Working together, there’s no limit to what we can do.”
Bloomberg is proud of his performance as mayor, and he should be. He is correct in stating that his approach has been nonpartisan. As successful as his mayoralty has been, then, one is left to wonder what is gained for the city of New York by his dropping the Republican label. Nothing, of course. Saying so is nothing more than media acrobatics, the early stages of the slow build that will ultimately result in three or four separate announcements that he is running for president as an independent.
His task will be daunting, and ultimately fruitless. No third party candidate has ever won a presidential election in this country, or, with the exception of former president Teddy Roosevelt, garnered more than 19% of the popular vote. Electoral politics in this country is notoriously difficult for a third party candidate to break through. We are ensconced in a two party system that rewards party affiliations. Of course, this is one of the things Bloomberg loves to rail against.
Mike Bloomberg is a billionaire, and that money will buy him media exposure that the main party nominees can only dream of. While becoming a familiar face to the American public is an important step in winning a national election, the Oval Office, while expensive, is not for sale to the highest bidder. His money will keep him from being an obscure candidate, and will get him some votes, but Ross Perot in 1992 showed that being able to spend at will is not enough to get a win.
Another, and very important reason, that Bloomberg will fail to win the presidency is his embrace of the political center. This holds that there are three labels in American politics: liberal, moderate, and conservative. Yet while liberal and conservative ideologies have seemingly endless definitions, there is no moderate ideology. Instead, what we have are people who hold liberal views about some things, and conservative views on others. Having more liberal views than conservative would make a person lean towards the Democratic Party and vice versa, but having an ideology with an equal number of conservative and liberal views does not make that person a moderate. It just means that they cross-pollinate their ideologies from both liberalism and conservatism.
Polling data that suggests that some 40% of the country is moderate is skewed by the definition of the word itself. The word moderate is defined on dictionary.com as “kept or keeping within reasonable or proper limits; not extreme, excessive, or intense.” This is a very desirable personal definition of self, thereby relegating the labels of liberal and conservative to extreme fringe behavior when they are anything but.
A moderate political label also relies on the idea that positions on an issue are defined on a linear basis, that there are myriad positions to have and moderates occupy a calm center far from the extremes. This is simply not true. For example, on an issue like abortion, there isn’t a center position. People either want it kept legal or made illegal. You can’t have half an abortion, after all. The recent stance of many Democrats that there should be less abortions is covered in the media as a moderate view, but this is false. Less abortions does not mean no abortions. A woman would still be able to go to a clinic and get the procedure on demand. This is a simple change in framing, not in ideology.
On Iraq, there is no moderate position, either. The choices are to continue the occupation, or to end it. Differences in timing and force levels are not signs of moderate ideology. Instead, they are nuances of strategy.
With this in mind, if Bloomberg does focus his campaign on the center of American politics, he will discover to his chagrin that the center is a myth. He will discover that there are anti-abortion/pro-universal healthcare advocates, pro-war/pro-progressive taxation advocates, pro-gay marriage/pro-death penalty advocates, and so on. Staking out the center in American politics means appealing to views that people don’t have. Conservative Republicans have been so successful during their past run of victories because they have been able to appeal to the conservative views of those who cross-pollinate their views. What appears to be on the surface a rigid ideology, is one that is designed rather to draw votes from anyone that has a conservative view on any issue. It looks rigid because the way to do this is to publicly back the conservative side on every issue, thus broadening the appeal of conservatism, not hamstringing it into an extreme base.
Bloomberg should already know this. A lifelong Democrat, he switched to the Republican Party expressly for the purpose of running for mayor of New York. The Democratic machine in the city is a rigid structure that he couldn’t have hoped to penetrate, so he went to the other side for a nomination. He won not because he was a Republican, but because he appealed to the liberal sensibilities of the city and preyed on a local Democratic machine that could offer nothing but cronyism, corruption, and incompetence. Is it any wonder that he now wishes to distance himself from the Republicans on a national stage?
The point is, he didn’t win in New York by being a moderate. He won by being competent, and by showing liberal New Yorkers that despite his name being on the GOP ticket, he was one of them. It was an easy trick to pull considering Bloomberg is liberal on so many issues, from gay marriage, to the environment, to gun control, to immigration, etc. Waffling on these views to appeal to an invisible center would only present the mayor as a disingenuous candidate that has nothing in common with any voter, liberal or conservative. But that looks to be exactly where a Bloomberg candidacy is headed.