Russert’s Panel of Bloomberg Skeptics Misses the Point

On the Bloomberg topic, Mr. Simon’s fellow “Meet the Press” guests were equally frustrating.

Ms. Ifill actually said: “Bill Clinton got elected, you will recall, because of Ross Perot’s presence in the race” – an utterly groundless assertion that has been repeated too many times by too many people (generally Republicans). Where is the evidence? When Mr. Perot led in Spring ’92 polls, it was clearly more at Mr. Clinton’s expense than Mr. Bush’s. And when Mr. Perot left the race in July, Mr. Clinton opened a steady double-digit advantage over Mr. Bush, one he didn’t relinquish (except during the Republican convention) until the rest of the way. (The race tightened to mid-single digits in the last week, as some voters got their customary cold feet about throwing an incumbent out.) Never after that year’s Democratic convention did George H.W. Bush lead Bill Clinton in a head-to-head poll.

Ms. Ifill’s comment also presupposed that Mr. Bloomberg would play the spoiler in ’08, and nothing else. Again, the ’92 example argues otherwise. Mr. Perot, even after suicidally abandoning the race for two months and raising serious questions about his own temperament and stability, secured 19 percent of the vote, taking substantially from both parties. If she wants to talk about 1992, Ms. Ifill would be better served asking how much better someone without Mr. Perot’s liabilities might have fared – someone like, say, the current mayor of New York.

Along those same lines, Mr. Harwood of The Wall Street Journal argued that there’s a “key difference” between 2008 and 1992: “In 1992, the unpopular President Bush was running for re-election. This President Bush is going to go off stage. If he were the nominee against Hillary Clinton … maybe Mike Bloomberg would have an opening. But that’s not going to happen."

Mr. Harwood committed the same crime as Mr. Simon, imposing a nonexistent precondition on the viability of an independent candidacy: It is not essential that one of the major party candidates be an incumbent.

But think back to the 2000 election (and forget, for a moment, the he-cost-Gore-Florida finger-pointing), when Ralph Nader snagged 2.7 percent of the national vote (without appearing on all 50 states' ballots). That showing actually constituted a major disappointment for Mr. Nader, who had polled between about 6 and 12 points throughout the summer and fall. His numbers fell off on Election Day because his soft supporters decided they’d be throwing their votes away on a lost cause. But his pre-election support was eye-opening, given the limited audience for his ideological message, and spoke directly to the yearnings of voters for a choice other than George W. Bush and Al Gore (or Gush and Bore, as some derisively called them). These voters weren’t so much drawn to Mr. Nader as they were turned off by the inspiration-less products of the political system that the two parties had asked them to choose between. There may not have been an incumbent on the ballot in 2000, but there was absolutely room for a third candidate. And Mr. Bloomberg probably wouldn’t suffer the same Election Day defections Mr. Nader did, since he’d be included in the debates, likely convincing voters of his equal standing with the Democratic and Republican candidates.

The Bloomberg discussion was not a major component of “Meet The Press” today, with most of the show given over the immigration debate. But as the mayor carries on with his flirtations, chances are that Mr. Russert will soon be revisiting the topic in a bigger way. Here’s hoping for a little more thoughtfulness among the panelists next time.