The Man Who Doesn’t Need to Be President

A joke going around when Ted Turner ran CNN had it that he’d been elected president but turned the job down because he didn’t want to give up any of his power. As the local press corps is atwitter again over the possibility that Mayor Michael Bloomberg will give up Gracie Mansion for a shot at the White House, the old line seems apt.

Mr. Bloomberg probably won’t run for president. The reason, he jokes, is that a short, divorced Jewish billionaire would never win. But the real reason is something Mr. Turner would have appreciated: giving up Gracie Mansion for the White House would be a demotion. As leader of the city, Mr. Bloomberg has achieved what chief executives across the land lust for–nearly unchecked power to do whatever he pleases.

We live in a rare moment in history, when our mayor could sit atop this list. Mayors Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani all had personalities large enough to fill out this oversize stage but were ultimately too provincial to resonate much beyond the political class. And each defined their tenure by what they were against: overheated liberalism, or the legacy of racial exclusion, or permissiveness run amok. Before them, a mayor’s was circumscribed by the Board of Estimate, a powerful body of appointed officials who horse-traded away a mayor’s ability to manage events.

Not so for Mr. Bloomberg. You can count on one hand the number of times he hasn’t gotten his way over the past decade. The checks on the mayor’s political power–the City Council, his fellow citywide elected officials–can’t filibuster, and have been reduced to throwing spitballs at his lectern. Press conferences on the steps of City Hall may get airtime, but the mayor mostly breezes through them.

A lot of this has to do with his enormous bank account. He is the only modern politician to come into office unencumbered by the normal political obligations that must be repaid. In 2005, Mr. Bloomberg got a primary challenge from a Republican party hack. His complaint? That the mayor had not given his fellow party officials the proper patronage jobs befitting the ballot line that they had bestowed upon him. In the process, Mr. Bloomberg has created a new political paradigm, not just here but around the nation, one that pooh-poohs party labels in favor of the fetishizing of what have come to be known as common-sense solutions. That post-partisanship that Barack Obama boasted of circa 2008? It owes its lineage to the 106th mayor of New York City.

His staff says that working with him is a novel experience. It is one of the few jobs in politics that eschews the grubby work of clubhouse deals and rubber chicken dinners. Aides are whisked around the world in his jet, or invited over to his Upper East Side townhouse (well, two townhouses, actually) for cocktail parties.

Who else but this mayor could pull off something so audacious as choosing an Upper East Side publishing executive to run the city’s school system, a system that he twice forced legislators to fully turn over to him? Who else but this mayor could upend a twice-enshrined term-limit law so that he could serve another term? In the normal conduct of politics, these are things simply not done. Yes, these moves have inspired complaints that the mayor is little more than a municipal dictator. But isn’t that something all executives aspire to, anyway?

Mr. Bloomberg has hit some resistance in Albany, but even that may begin to change, now that a reported donation by Mr. Bloomberg helped restore Republican rule in the State Senate, and Andrew Cuomo arrived at the mayor’s doorstep, hat in hand, at the moment when Carl Paladino seemed to be gaining on him. (Don’t think for a minute that the mayor’s backing came without a promise of future concessions.) At the endorsement press conference, Mr. Cuomo, whose last name is synonymous with Democratic politics, joined Harry Reid, Meg Whitman, Adrian Fenty and Cory Booker in the long line of pols wanting a nod from Mayor Mike. The future New York governor even admitted that he had voted for the mayor.

But politics, of course, is hardly the end of the mayor’s power. On his second shift, Mr. Bloomberg runs a philanthropic outfit that boasts of having Hank Paulsen and Walter Isaacson on its board and that has designs to outpace the Fords and Rockefellers of the world in its annual giving. This means that the nonprofit sector, whose army of outspoken advocates could be expected to march with pitchforks in hand against City Hall, has been mostly muted. Ditto the public-health sector. Even the city’s cultural class has to muzzle its criticism of the mayor for fear that its organizations will be cut off from the Bloomberg money spigot.

In most cities, the mayor is a functionary, with the thankless job of tempering the expectations of the local bank president or the chancellor of the local university or the local sports club owner. In New York, there are so many sectors competing for oxygen that the mayor can parcel out his time at his whim. A couple of years ago, a titan of Wall Street would have topped this list. But the financial industry collapsed under the weight of its own gargantuan ambitions, leaving the mayor to direct traffic downtown. Real estate has always been the biggest game in town, but the mayor turned down developers’ requests for more tax breaks to boost their buildings. The publishing magnates–the Murdochs and Zuckermans and Sulzbergers–felled David Paterson and Eliot Spitzer (Client 9 notwithstanding), but are firmly in the mayor’s corner, having gone golfing with him, or appeared alongside him to testify in front of Congress, or cleared away opposition so that he could run for a third term.

The city is shrinking in relation to Mike Bloomberg. Indeed, the last check on a politician’s power–the fourth estate–has seen its own influence crippled during the Bloomberg era. Fiorello LaGuardia had two dozen dailies to contend with. The Times now has only three to four pages a day devoted to covering the entire metropolitan region, and the other dailies are suffering similar cutbacks. But because New York remains a center of global media, the mayor’s presence is ubiquitous, and everything he does–from the smoking ban to his car-free Times Square to his jobs speech in Brooklyn earlier this month–ricochets around the world.

And amid this media tumult, which news organization is expected to grow? That would be Bloomberg News. Which recently added an op-ed page designed to trumpet the view of its founder, and which, according to an internal company memo, should be posting a profit of $10 billion a year by 2014. The Man Who Doesn’t Need to Be President