Russert’s Panel of Bloomberg Skeptics Misses the Point

Mr. Simon is correct that such a scenario is unlikely. But there’s no particular reason that Mr. Bloomberg’s prospects depend on the Democrats and Republicans each fielding ideological extremists. Actually, the most successful third party presidential efforts have come at the expense of major party candidates who weren’t far from the political middle. Ross Perot secured nearly 20 percent of the vote in 1992 against Bill Clinton, who ran as a centrist New Democrat, and George H.W. Bush, who never fit in with his party’s right wing. And Theodore Roosevelt actually placed second in 1912 against William Howard Taft, a risk-averse defender of the status quo, and Woodrow Wilson, whose progressive platform was bold, but less so than Roosevelt’s.

In those cases, a sizable chunk of the electorate had strong personal reservations about the major party candidates and an overpowering frustration with the dysfunction of the political system. In ’92, it wasn’t ideology that sent voters scurrying for a third choice; it was the combination of their lack of confidence in Mr. Bush’s response to a recession and their concerns about Mr. Clinton’s character and “slickness,” all against the backdrop of a bipartisan Congressional check-bouncing scandal.

Similarly, it won’t take a Goldwater-McGovern race to create an opening for Mr. Bloomberg next year. The Iraq war, a debacle brought to you by both political parties, has certainly created the kind of outrage that fueled the Perot movement, not to mention a sense of urgency. The key for Mr. Bloomberg is not whether next year’s big party nominees are extremists; it’s whether voters identify those nominees with the political system they so despise. In that sense, a Hillary Clinton-John McCain match-up, pitting a cautious and scripted Senator who voted for the war against another Senator who insisted on arguing for the war long after it was reasonable to do so, would suit Mr. Bloomberg just fine.

The second count of Mr. Simon’s indictment of Mr. Bloomberg involved what he called “an overemphasis” on the mayor’s multibillion-dollar personal fortune. “If you give $5 to a presidential campaign, you’re going to vote for that guy or that woman,” Mr. Simon observed. “If you self-finance your whole campaign, you don’t build any base of voter support. It’s just you and your checkbook, and voters, in the end, tend to resent that.”

Obviously, attracting hordes of small-dollar donors is a healthy sign for any campaign on multiple fronts. But those who give represent a tiny, highly-engaged segment of the electorate. But Mr. Bloomberg’s target audience would be the tens of millions of casual voters who perk up every fourth October but who otherwise don’t give the day-to-day happenings in the political world much thought. These are the masses who trudge to the polls out of civic obligation, holding their noses and lamenting that they’ve been forced to choose – yet again – between the lesser of two evils. Not being asked to donate money to Mr. Bloomberg would only make him more attractive to them.

Moreover, Mr. Simon’s idea that voters “resent” self-funding candidates is partly true, but it misses the point. Yes, self-funding candidates up and down the ballot are susceptible to charges of election-buying and they do tend to lose more than they win. But there is also considerable evidence that voters give these candidates a pass in one critical area: Corruptibility. Consider the case of Jon Corzine, who purchased the governorship of New Jersey for about $40 million in 2005. He did so even as headlines throughout the campaign screamed about his dealings and relationships with any number of rotten Democratic figures, the same dirty dealers who had propped up Jim McGreevey and Robert Torricelli until the end. But what saved Mr. Corzine was his money. He argued that his financial independence would translate into political independence from party bosses. And voters believed him. In the very same way, Mr. Bloomberg could easily portray a self-funded presidential campaign as a guarantee that he wouldn’t be beholden to the unsavory system. (Remember too that there was very little backlash against Mr. Perot’s lavish personal spending in ’92.)