On the left, it is increasingly fashionable to trash David Broder and his political pronouncements, which sometimes reflect an unusual and baffling level of sympathy for the White House.
But on “Meet the Press” this Sunday, Mr. Broder, the supposed “dean” of the Washington press corps, demonstrated that on at least one topic he’s well ahead of his fellow journalists.
At issue was Michael Bloomberg’s potential presidential candidacy and as his fellow panelists, PBS’s Gwen Ifill, The Wall Street Journal’s John Harwood and Roger Simon of The Politico, took turns expounding on The 646 Reasons Why An Independent Can Never Be Elected, Mr. Broder jumped in.
“You guys are much too dismissive,” he told them.
Mr. Broder then argued that an independent “absolutely” can win the presidency in 2008 because both parties are fatally tainted – the Republicans by their association with President Bush and the Democrats by their stewardship of Congress – thus creating a gaping opening for a credible third candidate in the middle.
His assertion wasn’t without flaws. For instance, he overstated the liability-potential of Congress for ’08 Democrats. Sure, Congress scores terribly in polls, but negative sentiment toward President Bush is vastly more intense, hostile and personal. But in the bigger picture, at least, Mr. Broder had the good sense to recognize that his fellow Washingtonians’ often-justified skepticism toward independents may not hold up in the case of 2008 and Mr. Bloomberg.
His fellow panelists, by contrast, seemed to be on autopilot, offering up one familiar and easy-to-rebut argument against Mr. Bloomberg’s plausibility after another.
Take Mr. Simon, customarily an insightful political observer. Asked by host Tim Russert for his take on the Bloomberg ’08 talk, Mr. Simon responded with a cheap-shot – “For the Bloomberg scenario, I was going to call it a fantasy, but that would be cruel” – before offering two particularly suspect reasons to write off Mr. Bloomberg.
"For the scenario to work,” he said, “not just one party, but both parties have to nominate candidates at the extremes. You have to have a Barry Goldwater on one side and a George McGovern on the other. How likely is that to happen, especially since both parties know that Michael Bloomberg might enter the race?”
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.)
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.