9:25 am Nov. 28, 2011
Whenever the national commentariat works itself into a lather over a supposedly egregious example of partisan gridlock, you can count on Michael Bloomberg to weigh in with a formulaic, attention-grabbing scolding of both parties’ leadership.
So it was that the independent-registered, rhetorically centrist mayor bemoaned the collapse of the deficit-reduction committee early last week as “a damning indictment of Washington’s inability to govern” and singled out President Obama for failing to “bring people together and to provide leadership in difficult situations.”
That his assessment didn’t exactly line up with reality is beside the point; Bloomberg was doing what he does best in these situations: posing as the only adult in American politics and encouraging the media to speculate about the possibility of a self-funded, independent presidential bid.
As rote as it seemed, it was still interesting to watch Bloomberg execute his latest gimmick, not because it suggested the 69-year-old mayor will actually seek the White House (he almost certainly won’t, next year or ever) but because the idea that he might seemed to generate an unusual level of interest from the political world. This is something you might want to get used to, at least for the next few months, not just because Bloomberg undeniably has the financial resources to mount a national campaign if he really wants to, but because for only the third time in 32 years it appears that next year’s election will feature the three ingredients that are most conducive to the emergence of a credible third party candidate.
The first ingredient is the presence of an incumbent president. The second is a pervasive sense of economic anxiety that lowers the incumbent’s job-approval numbers to ominous levels and makes swing voters eager to toss him from office (even if they like him personally). And the third is an equally pervasive sense of unease about the fitness of the opposition party’s candidate (or the opposition party itself) to lead the country.
All the elements of this formula were present in 1980, when sagging national confidence plunged Jimmy Carter’s approval rating to the low 30s, even as Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan, who was then widely seen as a trigger-happy right-wing ideologue. These circumstances prompted Illinois congressman John B. Anderson, a liberal Republican who had fallen hopelessly behind Reagan in the G.O.P. race, to launch an independent bid that initially attracted gaudy poll numbers (nearly a quarter of the vote, in one spring survey).
The 1992 campaign played out against a similar backdrop, with the early '90s recession jeopardizing George H.W. Bush while the Democrats settled on a scandal-plagued Bill Clinton, who emerged from his party’s primaries as perhaps the least-trusted political figure in America. Enter H. Ross Perot, who soared to 40 percent in the polls by the end of May.
Neither Anderson nor Perot was able to sustain his peak level, partly because each had his own problems (Anderson had trouble raising money, while Perot cracked up and briefly dropped out of the race) and partly because Americans often end up balking at the idea of throwing their votes away. Still, Anderson managed to secure seven percent of the national popular vote, while Perot grabbed nearly 20, making his the most successful independent candidacy since Teddy Roosevelt’s in 1912.
The attention that was lavished on Bloomberg for his comments last week, and which will presumably greet his next pox-on-both-houses pronouncement, speaks at least in part to return of the conditions that made the Anderson and Perot boomlets possible.
Obama’s job-approval number isn’t quite as bad as Carter’s or Bush’s, but it’s still well under 50 percent. And with the ongoing European crisis making the prospect of another recession here more likely, it’s very doubtful that Obama will benefit from the kind of election year economic rebound that might prompt swing voters to rally back around him. In other words, he’s in real danger of being denied a second term.
But the Republican Party has some serious problems of its own. With G.O.P. leaders in Washington and in state houses across the country living in fear of Tea Party revolts, the party has spent the past year using the new power it won in the 2010 midterm elections to pursue an agenda that is as deeply conservative as it is unpopular. In the process, the party’s standing in polls has fallen to depths not seen since the Clinton impeachment saga, and the off-year elections held earlier this month served as something of a warning to the G.O.P. about the risks of overreach.
Even if Mitt Romney, who is clearly the G.O.P.’s most electable option, secures the presidential nomination, there’s a real chance his party’s poisonous image will rub off on him, giving pause to swing voters who badly want to get rid of Obama. There’s even now the possibility that Newt Gingrich, a man with formidable baggage and an array of self-destructive tendencies, will emerge as the G.O.P. candidate, an outcome that would only widen the opening for a third general election candidate.
Because of Bloomberg’s vast fortune, his independent status, and the disproportionate attention he commands as the leader of the world’s media capital, the press is already conditioned to treat him as a national prospect. Add in his team’s eagerness to feed this interest and the unique dynamics that will define the ’12 race and you get a recipe for a lot more Bloomberg White House talk in the months ahead.
In truth, they’re probably speculating about the wrong guy. Not only are the odds of Bloomberg actually launching a campaign remote, there’s also reason to doubt that the disgruntled masses would see an Upper East Side billionaire as the above-the-fray wise man that so many inhabitants of the media world see. How else to explain a recent poll that found Bloomberg running significantly worse against Obama and Romney than Texas congressman Ron Paul, who hasn’t ruled out a third-party bid of his own?
In this way, Bloomberg’s White House flirtations do end up serving as a valuable reminder that the right independent candidate could have a measurable impact on the 2012 race. But the right candidate isn't going to be Michael Bloomberg.
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