How Will Bloomberg Remain Relevant?

When he won what was supposed to be his final term as mayor four years ago, Michael Bloomberg quickly found himself – or made himself, really – the subject of presidential speculation.

The mayor never formally expressed interest in a 2008 White House campaign, but he managed to keep the talk alive for more than two years. Remember his dramatic exit from the Republican Party in the summer of 2007? And almost as soon as the usefulness of that P.R. gesture expired, he switched gears and rammed a term limits extension through the City Council.

Collectively, his moves were a stunningly successful effort to stave off (and then reverse) the condition of being a lame duck.

Neither of those tricks will work this time around. If New York voters hand Mr. Bloomberg his third term today, there will be no talk of a 2012 presidential campaign and there will be no second term-limits extension. Nor is there the prospect of a Bloomberg for Governor campaign (speculation about that came and went – briefly – last year) or a Bloomberg Senate bid. The clock will be ticking.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bloomberg in his third term should still have an opportunity to continue playing a leading role on the national political stage – even though the threat of a future campaign for any office will be off the table. The key to his relevance, this time, will be the unique reputation -genuine political independent entrenched in one of the most powerful perches in the country, and backed up by billions of idle dollars – that he’s carved out for himself.

As N.Y.U. professor and former Bloomberg campaign adviser Mitchell Moss puts it, the mayor is an “icon of political autonomy.”

Exactly how Mr. Bloomberg will choose to leverage this reputation isn’t yet clear. Maybe he’ll simply build on the success of his campaign for gun control, enlisting other mayors and elected officials for the cause – or even branching out and forming new, completely different coalitions on other issues. This would be the safe approach – feel-good press conferences, occasional appearances on the Sunday shows, and favorable mentions on editorial pages across the country.

More intriguingly, though, the mayor could throw himself – and his money – more directly into elected politics, aggressively backing candidates across the country in an effort to put the Bloomberg stamp on national politics for years to come. This would be the riskier path.

Here, a parallel can be drawn to the last diminutive billionaire independent to cast such a shadow on the national political scene: Ross Perot, who actually did run for president, garnering nearly 20 percent of the vote in 1992. While Mr. Perot displayed alarmingly erratic behavior during that race, he emerged from it with high popularity, thanks to strong performances in the October debates. 

Following that ’92 run, Mr. Perot was seen as a likely candidate for a second run in 1996. But first, he decided to put his reputation and clout on the line by hurling himself into the top political battles of 1993 and 1994. The result, for the mega-rich Texan, was catastrophic.

It began when he anointed himself the leader of the opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement that Congress took up – and that President Bill Clinton was championing – in the fall of ’93. For a while, it worked, with public opinion steadily moving toward Mr. Perot’s position. Then, the White House deputized Vice President Al Gore to debate him on CNN’s “Larry King Live” – and millions of shocked Americans watched as the testy, unprepared Mr. Perot unraveled on national television.

He then tried to recoup his standing by jumping into the 1994 midterm elections, setting off on a national endorsement tour weeks before the election. In his most dramatic move, Mr. Perot opted to support Texas Governor Ann Richards, who was facing a stiff challenge from George W. Bush. The move attracted considerable attention, since Mr. Perot had run against Mr. Bush’s father two years earlier, and backfired when Mr. Bush was handily elected.

By the time ’96 rolled around, Mr. Perot was an afterthought, and his campaign attracted less than half of its ’92 support. And in the 13 years since then, he’s barely made a peep.

His experience ought to be a cautionary tale for Mr. Bloomberg as he decides how to play his third term: Relevance, no matter how many zeroes are in your net worth, can be a fleeting commodity.

  How Will Bloomberg Remain Relevant?