For Michael Bloomberg, the Republican Party was the political equivalent of a two-door hatchback: It served a purpose, it got him where he needed to go, but he always looked a little cramped and never overly comfortable with his fellow passengers.
Now, of course, the two-term Mayor has traded in the old heap for an expensive and more-fashionable vehicle known as political independence. His decision made sense, and yet was stunning all the same. Politicians have been known to switch parties in the past—John Lindsay did so as Mayor of New York, and both Mr. Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, were Democrats at one point in their lives. But rarely do politicians renounce parties on principle.
Then again, not many politicians have the financial resources and political gumption of the businessman turned Mayor. Mr. Bloomberg renounced his membership in the Republican Party for the same reason that George Steinbrenner rents aging pitchers: because he can.
The Mayor’s decision may mean nothing, in which case the planet has been denuded of perfectly good woodlands for no good reason, casualties of print journalism’s attempt to explain its greater significance.
The second possibility, of course, is that the Mayor is preparing to run for President in 2008 as an independent candidate—which means as a possible alternative to his fellow New Yorkers Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani.
Another possibility has it that Mr. Bloomberg, who cannot run for a third term in 2009 because of the city’s two-term limit, is positioning himself for a big job with the next President.
It’s hard to believe that the Mayor’s decision means nothing. It would seem equally unlikely that he would need to position himself for an appointed job in a future administration. Given his achievements in public and private life, Mr. Bloomberg is a hot political property who will be on any incoming President’s A list of possible advisors.
So, then, it comes down to Election ’08, and a possible, not to say quixotic, independent Presidential candidacy by a man whose name was unknown to most Americans six years ago.
Only Mr. Bloomberg knows how serious all of this is, and perhaps even he doesn’t know. But one thing is certain: As long as people are chattering about Mike Bloomberg and the White House, it means they are chattering about New York City. And that’s a good thing.
For decades now, New York City has functioned as an A.T.M. for prospective Presidential candidates. They’d fly in for a fund-raising event, deliver generic remarks that contained only the slightest hints that they knew what city they were in, and they’d fly out, checks in hand. New York City generated cash, not discussion.
Suddenly the dynamic has changed. New York has become the intellectual center of the fledging 2008 Presidential campaign, home of two announced candidates and another one, maybe. When, or if, Mr. Bloomberg joins the race, he will join Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Giuliani in touting their achievements in New York as a template for what they would do nationally and even globally.
Only a fool or a licensed soothsayer would have predicted such an outcome in 1992, when New York City seemed on the brink of a second fiscal, economic and emotional collapse. Those days of high crime, overflowing welfare rolls, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and tepid leadership indicated that the revival of the Koch years was an illusion, that New York was about to sink back into the abyss of 1975, this time never to return.
That didn’t happen. Instead, New York City became, incredibly, a global model of reinvention and revitalization during the 1990’s. And, after the horrific attacks of 9/11, the city proved to be economically and emotionally resilient. Americans beyond the Hudson River, so often skeptical of, if not hostile to, New York, saw in our firefighters, rescue workers, political leaders and extraordinary citizens a defiant pride that steadied their nerves and warmed their hearts.
Now, in the second election after 9/11, not one but two Mayors of New York City are part of the national conversation, along with the state’s junior Senator. Not coincidentally, all three played vital roles in reviving New York in the 1990’s and then refocused its political discourse on finding solutions, not developing theories.
Mr. Giuliani, as the inheritor of a mess when he took office in 1994, is most identified with the city’s remarkable revival during the 1990’s. But Mrs. Clinton, as a full partner in the Clinton administration, surely played a role in creating and maintaining the prosperity from which the city benefited. And Mr. Bloomberg, of course, presided over the city’s recovery from 9/11.
All three candidates are considered Presidential material not because of the ideologies they espouse but because of the solutions they have proposed and implemented. Given New York’s reputation as home to ideological politics, whether at the clubhouse level on the left or the intellectual level on the right, it is worth noting that all three New Yorkers are post-ideological centrists who have helped their respective parties move to the middle.
Of the three, Mr. Bloomberg might well be the best candidate from New York. He has done a remarkable job as Mayor in not only building on the successes of Mr. Giuliani but adding to them. In his second term, he has focused relentlessly on long-term goals, a rare trait in a profession known for its shortsighted agendas.
Skeptics would argue that Mr. Bloomberg’s independent candidacy would meet the same fate as H. Ross Perot in 1992. But Mr. Bloomberg has a lot more money than Mr. Perot—and he has a remarkable record, too.
If Mr. Bloomberg committed to spending, say, a billion dollars on a Presidential campaign (why not?), anything could happen.
Whether he runs or not, however, there can be no denying New York’s place at the center of the Presidential race. If the candidates are talking about New York, they are talking about life in the cities of America in the 21st century. Urban America has been absent from political debate for too long. Mr. Bloomberg can and will help to change that.