Bloomberg Acts Like a Man With Options

When Michael Bloomberg sat down with Tom Brokaw to discuss the Wall Street crisis on Sunday’s Meet the Press, he did so as a lame duck, a 66-year-old politician not running for office this year and barred from seeking a third mayoral term next year. At least he’s supposed to be a lame duck.

Even though there’s little more than a year left in his mayoral tenure, Bloomberg is only becoming more vital to the political scene, as opposed to polishing his legacy and slowly fading from relevance like most lame ducks do. Officially, he was on Meet the Press to offer his perspective as a titan of the financial world and as the leader of the city most acutely affected by the current economic chaos. But Brokaw’s questioning eventually stretched into decidedly non-lame-duck areas.

Specifically, Brokaw noted that “there is some exploration going on” in New York about potentially junking the 15-year-old term-limits law and asked whether Bloomberg would be interested in staying on as mayor if it could be worked out.

“Well, I have 466 days left to go in my job,” Bloomberg replied, “and I was sort of thinking, maybe, to be host of this program. That would be a nice job for me. Probably pays a little bit better than the dollar a year I get now.”

Then, Brokaw told the mayor that “most people believe that you have, for a public figure, as strong a take on what this country needs to do as anyone in public office right now” and asked if he’d be willing to run an agency in Washington to “try to manage our way out of all this.”

“I’d do anything that the country asked me to do, but I do have a job in New York,” Bloomberg replied. “I’ve committed myself to the voters and the taxpayers and the citizens of New York to do the best job I can, and we’re going to go through some very tough times.”

Not surprisingly, Bloomberg’s answers to both questions weren’t really answers at all, but efforts to deflect the questioning without saying anything particularly revealing or committal in nature—a technique that Brokaw obliged by not pursuing any follow-ups. This, of course, is the exact same game Bloomberg played throughout 2007 and the early days of 2008 whenever he was asked about the presidential race that he’d demonstrated an interest (under the right circumstances) in entering.

Nor did he limit his opaque responses on Sunday to questions about his political future.

When Brokaw asked him about Joe Biden’s much-discussed comment last week that it’s “patriotic” for wealthy Americans to pay more in taxes, Bloomberg side-stepped the question, offering only: “I do remember reading that. You know, I’ve always been a believer that one of the real differences between America and other countries is that we do pay our taxes.”

Asked whether the capital-gains tax rate should be raised from 15 percent, Bloomberg offered an unsolicited Cliff’s Notes summary of the debate, presenting simplified synopses of each side’s view without clearly expressing his own position. And when Brokaw directly asked him if he would endorse one of the presidential candidates, the mayor showed little interest in taking sides: “I’ve listened to both candidates and I want to make sure that, for as long as I can, I have a good dialogue with both, that I can give them my views and the perspective of New York.”

Besides once again confirming his cautious and disciplined public style, Bloomberg’s performance suggested two conclusions, which aren’t (necessarily) mutually exclusive.

One is that, as he discovered with last year’s presidential chatter, Bloomberg knows that encouraging speculation about his interest in elected office and cabinet posts is a potent tool in confronting the perils of lame-duck-dom. With the media actively talking up the possibility that he may yet stay on as mayor or that he might relocate to, say, the Treasury Department next January, Bloomberg’s relevance to virtually everyone he deals with, directly and indirectly, increases. He is seen more as a politician who wants to step onto a bigger stage—not one who’s about to exit the stage altogether.

But, as with his White House flirtations, there’s every reason to believe that Bloomberg’s interest in the speculated-about scenarios is real.

Once Barack Obama and John McCain locked up their parties’ nominations, the idea of Bloomberg—or any credible independent contender—jumping into the fall race disappeared. But what if Hillary Clinton, whose appeal is more rooted in the traditional constituencies of the Democratic Party, and Mitt Romney, a man vastly more appreciated by conservative activists than independents, had instead emerged? There would have been room in the middle and a tempting opening for Bloomberg—a possibility of which he was fully aware as he released one trial balloon after another last year.

In the same sense, now, it makes perfect sense that Bloomberg would be open to either of the political options that Brokaw teased him with on Sunday—a third mayoral term or a high-profile role in Washington. Both are sensitive subjects—the mayoral option because of the term-limits law, and the cabinet (or high-level agency) option because an appointment from the winner of the presidential race would be necessary. So it was perhaps telling how quick Bloomberg was to change the subject from the mayoral question, and how intent he seemed to avoid criticizing either Obama or McCain (or Joe Biden, for that matter).

By saying so little about his political future on Sunday, Michael Bloomberg said a lot.

Bloomberg Acts Like a Man With Options