Bloomberg’s Exercise in Vanity

conason bloomberg Bloomberg’s Exercise in VanityAs political buzzwords, “bipartisan” and “non-partisan” and “independent” sound elevated and even virtuous, which must be why we so often hear them touted as remedies for our national ills. Every four years the promoters of these miracle cures seek a vessel for their illusions, preferably someone whose fortune is as limitless as his ego. This year’s model seems to be Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York and billionaire owner of the national business news service.

The immediate charm of a Bloomberg candidacy—or the candidacy of any other such supposed savior—is that it serves as a blank screen suitable for the projection of whatever obsessions, beliefs, projects or personal qualities are desired.

He is not only independent but free-floating, at least in the imaginations of his would-be supporters; he is not only devoid of ideology but practically free of content altogether, like nonpartisanship itself.

Or at least that is how he appears, until he is subjected to closer scrutiny.

For now let’s leave aside the most obvious impediments to presidential victory for a short, divorced, secular Jewish New Yorker who lives in unwedded sin with his girlfriend and whose speaking style is most politely described as uninspiring. Let’s focus instead on the logic behind his anticipated bid and what Americans will learn about him if he does run.

For most of his life, Mr. Bloomberg was a Democrat, and that is what he remains to this day, despite his repeated re-branding. Voters who expect to discover something new and different in his beliefs will be badly disappointed. On many issues, in fact, he sits on the leftward end of the Democratic spectrum—along with those who share his strong opposition to the death penalty; his eagerness to regulate cigarettes, fatty foods, handguns and cars; his zeal against global warming; and his admirable desire to improve the lives of the poor. He has spoken out against restrictions on immigration and the growing income gap between wealthy Americans like himself and the rest of us.

In short, he shares most of the beliefs and concerns of the Democratic Party. But back in 2001, when he decided to run for mayor, he worried that his fellow Democrats wouldn’t nominate him. So he bought the New York City Republican Party, which was on sale for cheap, and became a nominal Republican.

After 9/11, Mr. Bloomberg embraced his new political identity. He welcomed the Bush Republicans to New York City for their convention, arrested and detained peaceful protesters in blatant violation of their civil rights and enthusiastically endorsed the invasion and occupation of Iraq back when that was still a popular position.

By last spring he realized that most Americans regard the war as a mistake at best. “Nobody wants the war in Iraq to continue,” he told The New York Sun, “but how are you going to pull out, and what happens next? You’ve got to be able to say, if pulling out of Iraq causes this, this is what I would do; if staying in Iraq causes that, this is what I would do.”

So far, the mayor has yet to form a coherent response to those questions, but he is reportedly taking foreign affairs tutorials with Nancy Soderberg, a former Clinton National Security Council official, and Henry Kissinger, a Manhattan social friend of Mr. Bloomberg who happens to be responsible for several of the worst policy initiatives ever perpetrated by an American president.

While pondering the mysteries of world affairs, he repented his support of President Bush and of the Republican Party, which he has formally abandoned. The G.O.P. label was never much use to him as mayor of New York, a city legislatively dominated by Democrats. Much as he complains about the rise of partisanship, the truth is that his successful administration has enjoyed a high degree of bipartisan cooperation and support. (It’s the Republicans who despise him now.)

Presumably Mr. Bloomberg won’t run for president unless he believes he has a real chance to win, but that is hard to imagine today, when his national name recognition remains low and his standing in many polls is lower than “undecided.”

Even harder to imagine is why he would spend billions to divide liberals and moderates in the general election, risking another four years of failed right-wing government, partisan stasis and national decline. Exactly what is it about him that makes such a risk worth taking?