Jan. 17, 2020, 8:51 a.m.
The last few friends I've told that I'm excited about Mike Bloomberg's candidacy for president have met me with stares of incredulity. In exasperation, I'm asked, "don't you know he's a billionaire?" or "how could you support someone who enacted stop-and-frisk?" or "isn't he just trying to buy the election?" I'm going to address these issues below and explain why I think Bloomberg would make a great president.
First, the billionaire thing. You can rage about the existence of billionaires, but they exist because the US economic system gives entrepreneurs disproportionately large rewards. It's reasonable to debate whether that system is problematic (it probably is) or whether there ought to be a more progressive tax system, but it's important not to conflate a product of that system (Bloomberg's billions) with a moral judgement on the person. I personally find celebrity worship in sports and entertainment media pretty revolting, but that doesn't mean that athletes or movie stars are bad people per se. Like Bloomberg, they're successful in a societal and economic system that existed before they did. Unlike celebrity worship, entrepreneurs at least creates jobs--in Bloomberg's case many high-paying jobs--which is exactly what we need if we want to provide jobs to people whose previous jobs were outsourced.
Rather than raging against the billionaire, let's co-opt the billionaire. Bloomberg's riches could, and probably would, be employed to achieve both electoral and policy successes. First and foremost, Bloomberg immediately neutralizes the ability of GOP donors to buy policy positions via the corrupt but legal system that is campaign finance. Policy-by-payment, such as Sheldon Adelson's purchase of Trump's pro-Israel policy, would be perceived to be a much more expensive, and riskier, investment. More importantly, if Bloomberg were the nominee the entire Democratic party apparatus would be funded to a level that its never reached before. Bloomberg demonstrated in 2018 what his largess can achieve in smart and targeted financial support; he effectively flipped the house by funding 28 close congressional campaigns, 24 of which won. 218 seats are needed for a majority, Pelosi has 235. It's plausible that without Bloomberg's backing there's no democratic majority, meaning no Nancy Pelosi and no impeachment, much less any effective check on Trump.
One of the primary lessons from the Trump era ought to be that if you rely on the executive to make fiat policy your policy achievements will last only as long as your party retains power. Nothing was more discouraging than watching Trump rollback Obama's policies on climate change, the environment, how sexual assault in universities is handled, DACA, healthcare advertising, etc. The main policy change of the Obama era that remains, though battered, is the ACA. The ACA has withstood a decade of sustained Republican attacks because it is law passed by the two houses of congress and signed by the president. In contrast, Trump can wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and there is nothing that anybody can do about it. If we want lasting policy changes we need to pass laws, to pass laws we need to control both houses of congress and the presidency, and to win elections we need funding (1). Bloomberg would make that happen.
Let's imagine for a minute that Bloomberg gets the nomination, outspends Trump 5 to 1, beats him, retains the house and flips the senate. What would that look like? Well, Bloomberg's focus in the past few years has been on combating climate change, reducing gun violence, and improving educational opportunities and outcomes. These priorities are squarely within the Democratic mainstream and there's no reason to believe that a Democratically-controlled congress wouldn't write these priorities into law. It's high time we ended our criminally negligent disregard for the environment, make a serious dent into the dysfunctional manifestation of hyper-masculinity that is gun violence, and really improve public school quality and educational opportunity.
All of the Democratic candidates have policies on climate change, gun violence, healthcare, taxation, and education that are more similar than different, and perhaps you have a preferred policy flavor that is more closely aligned to, say, Warren or Sanders. For example, my ideal government has roles and responsibilities that are more aligned to Warren's views than Bloomberg's. Yet after being in academia (where the emphasis is on theory) for fifteen years and in the workforce (where emphasis is on practice) for ten, I find that one's ability to turn abstract ideas into reality is supremely important. I've seen too many pristine ideas die because people mistake the ability to have a good idea with the ability to turn it into practice. In this respect, Bloomberg's background and experience is unmatched. Starting one of the most successful companies in the US from scratch and having a highly successful tenure (three terms/twelve years) as mayor of America's largest city can give us confidence that he understands how to make things happen and how to be an effective public servant. His actual track record gives us certainty that a large portion of his policy proposals will be enacted. A presidential election is not merely a popular referendum on policy proposals; with no actual executive track record to look at, we should be reticent to believe that Warren, Sanders, or Buttigieg will be able to actually do the things that they say they want to do.
While executive experience in government is very important when it comes to choosing the government's chief executive, with it comes the reality that executives often make mistakes. Stop-and-frisk is perhaps the most egregious policy mistake Bloomberg made as mayor of NYC. While Bloomberg's tenure "reduced murders by 50%, reduced police shootings to historic lows, reduced the number of people incarcerated by nearly 40%," (2) stop-and-frisk racially profiled black and hispanic men and violated their 4th Amendment rights. Bloomberg recognized his mistake and recently apologized for stop-and-frisk. Though not of the same magnitude, his failed plan to ban the sale of sodas larger than a certain size was also dumb. If the other Democratic candidates had the amount of executive experience that Bloomberg has, they'd have made a litany of their own unique mistakes. The fact that they can remain unscathed because they haven't made the wrong choices means only that they haven't had the actual responsibility of leading anything.
With Bloomberg as the nominee, I believe the Democrats can be confident they'll win the presidency, expand their hold in the house and possibly win the senate. While both Warren or Sanders (2) could defeat Trump, I think they'd have a more difficult time keeping the house or gaining the senate because of their reputation as socialists and the belief by many voters than socialism is "a Bad Thing" (TM, 1950 McCarthy). Let's make the choice to get 80% of what we really want done rather than gamble and get another Obama whose policy legacy doesn't outlast their term in office.
(1) I think money in politics is fucked up. While I fully support version of campaign finance reform, we have to act in the world as-is with the intention to make it more closer to how we'd like it to be.
(2) Biden is so boring that I almost forget he's running even though he's the front-runner.