Michael Bloomberg is completely misreading the American electorate

The last thing the American people want is a billionaire oligarch arguing for elite policies

Is Michael Bloomberg right about being the candidate who can save America from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz?
(Image credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)

I speculated a while back that we might get more self-financed billionaire presidential candidates if Donald Trump proves the model. But it looks like Mike Bloomberg might not even wait that long.

The former mayor of New York City — who is worth an estimated $36.5 billion, thanks to founding the global financial data giant that bears his last name — has reportedly told his advisors to draw up plans for a potential independent run this year. According to a story in The New York Times, Bloomberg is disturbed by the rise of both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in the GOP field, and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. He's anticlimactically toyed with presidential bids before, and has apparently set himself a March deadline to decide.

So I guess we'll see.

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But if one thread unifies the upheavals in Democratic and Republican races, it's broad voter disgust with how the ruling establishments of both parties have run the country. The difference lies in where Sanders and Trump wish to take that anger: Sanders into a genuinely economic populist push to downsize Wall Street, increase spending on jobs, and scale up the size and generosity of the welfare state; Trump into a racist and nativist anti-immigrant push and a kind of cult of personality. But without a doubt, they are both reacting to the same failed elite.

And probably more than any other potential candidate, Bloomberg embodies the views and ideological ticks of that elite.

In many respects, he's a standard social liberal: committed to gun control and immigration reform, a supporter of gay marriage and a dedicated climate hawk. But he also defended the rich and Wall Street in particular in the aftermath of the Great Recession, he's skeptical of minimum wage hikes, and he's an enthusiastic deficit hawker. (Though he is, at least, willing to close the budget hole with tax hikes as much as spending cuts.) But as Jonathan Chait once observed, Bloomberg is "not merely a functional elitist but a philosophically committed one," willing to impose policies such as stop and frisk or the soda ban without regard to concerns over civil rights or liberty, based on the raw premise that they will get results.

This technocratic collection of commitments — combined with the imperious belief that it is right and proper for the oligarchic elite to rule — is the essence of Bloombergism.

As Chait put it, "Bloomberg is the candidate of the Democratic Party's donor class," but that's a sloppy rendering. Rather, Bloomberg is the candidate of the donor class, period.

To paint with a broad brush: At the highest echelons of the economy — the 1 percent and above — Bloomberg's fiscal, economic and social principles largely rule. The wealthy elite place top priority on deficit reduction when asked to name the most important problems facing the country. They're far more opposed to spending on things like health care and food stamps than the general population; they're considerably less enthusiastic than the median American about the minimum wage and unemployment insurance; and they're way less enthusiastic about rhe idea of the government as the employer of last resort.

Meanwhile, the corporate wing of the Republican Party is basically cool with things like LGBT rights and immigration, which has always placed them in uneasy company with the party's socially conservative base — a tension Trump is now exacerbating to the breaking point.

None of this is really surprising, since both economic conservatism and social liberalism tend to intensify as you move up the income distribution.

Think of it this way: The Democratic Party is far more diverse along every conceivable line of gender, race, age and class, with a lot of different priorities. But a leftward tilt on economic issues is the one consistent glue that holds practically all of these various tribes together. Even though poorer Democrats may be more socially conservative than the party, they also prioritize economic issues in their voting patterns. As the rise of Sanders shows, the whole base wants to move away from the economic aspects of Bloombergism, not towards them.

GOP voters, meanwhile, are overwhelmingly white, and concentrated higher up the income ladder. But plenty of them have still been hit hard by the rise in inequality, the collapse in median wages, and the disappearance of working-class jobs. The GOP base is willing to buy into the economic aspects of Bloombergism, but only if the party stays as far away from Bloombergism's social and cosmopolitan aspects as possible. Trump's rise suggests the base is sick and tried of waiting for the Republican Party to make good on that bargain.

Bloombergism, in short, is exactly the sort of centrism that's been under assault in both primaries, and Bloomberg himself is utterly misreading the political zeitgeist. He would almost certainly be crushed in any national election.

But that would also make a run by him weirdly perfect, since a three-way war between Sanders, Trump, and Bloomberg would be a rough encapsulation of America's current impasse.

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