If former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decides to run for president this year, he’s not going to win. He should still run, however, to establish a moderate political movement that lasts beyond 2016.
This deeply polarized country desperately needs one, and it might even develop into a genuine third party representing Bloomberg’s fellow moderate centrists. Consider: exit polls in every election cycle show that 40-plus percent of voters self-identify as moderate (30-plus as conservative, 20-plus as liberal). The Gallup poll shows that a record 43 percent identify as independent (30 percent as Democrat and 26 percent as Republican).
Various political scientists contend such data is misleading — that moderates and independents are really Democrats and Republicans in disguise. But that could be because we’re always forced to choose between a Democratic Party heading farther and farther left and a GOP gone far right.
On issues, most voters are moderate. In recent polls, 57 percent want stricter gun control, 69 percent want the government to do more about climate change (only 9 percent think it’s a hoax), and 57 percent think abortion should be legal in most cases, but 48 percent want it banned after 20 weeks.
Also, 58 percent favor allowing illegal immigrants a chance to be citizens (versus 26 percent who’d deport them), but a majority don’t want to accept Syrian refugees. Americans want a president who’s tough on terrorism but 60 percent oppose banning all Muslims from entering the US.
This year, there’s a definite tilt toward populism: 63 percent favor raising taxes on the rich to lessen income inequality. Eighty percent favor requiring employers to offer paid leave. But a majority also thinks adjustments need to be made in Social Security benefits to save the program. If populists Donald Trump and Bernard Sanders win the GOP and Democratic nominations, there’d be a huge centrist hole between the nativist-authoritarian bully-blowhard and the 74-year-old left-wing democratic socialist.
If rightist Ted Cruz ended up the GOP nominee, the ideological gap would be even wider. If Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination, Bloomberg probably wouldn’t run — but for now he should keep his options open in case Clinton’s email misdeeds knock her out of the race.
Bloomberg must know there’s next to zero chance he’d actually win the presidency. He’s not well known outside New York. He’d be late starting to get on 50 state ballots. He’s not charismatic. He doesn’t have a national support base. There is no centrist party.
His agenda is unclear. He’s known for driving cigarettes out of public places and trying to ban big, sugary soft drinks — “nanny state” stuff. He’s known for being pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-gay marriage.
He’s less well known for closing a $6 billion deficit and producing a $3 billion surplus, for battling teachers’ unions to improve New York public schools and for tough anti-crime and anti-terrorism policies.
But by spending $1 billion of his own money and attracting support from unhappy moderates and independents, he could make a big dent. Sixty-two percent of voters have an unfavorable view of Trump. Sanders has better numbers now, but his expensive left-wing program would be rejected by most voters.
Conceivably Bloomberg could win a plurality of the popular vote, though no third party candidate ever has done so. Being a social policy liberal, he wouldn’t carry any red states, but might take some blue and swing states. It’s unlikely, but he might even win enough electoral votes to throw the election into the GOP-dominated House of Representatives, which would then undoubtedly select Trump or Cruz.
Whether Bloomberg runs or not, the prospect of a right-wing Republican — or a big government Democratic — regime makes the need for an organized, well-financed moderate counterweight all the more important.
Lots of centrist groups and anti-polarization groups exist — Third Way, No Labels, The Centrist Party, the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Centrist Project — but none has the money, clear agenda or heavyweight political support to truly challenge the prevailing political order.
If Bloomberg is going to spend $1 billion in 2016, he ought not blow it on a hopeless one-shot endeavor. He should seek to establish something lasting.
He should use 2016 to establish a well-understood centrist agenda — pro-growth economics (including tax reform, infrastructure-building, entitlement reform and free trade), immigration reform, action on climate change, moderate social policy, poverty-fighting and opportunity-creation, a strong defense. And gather like-minded leaders and voters around the program. And create a continuing, well-financed centrist apparatus.
Whether it developed into a full-blown political party would depend on how well — or badly — the next president governed. It might be it’d just help bolster creative conservative Speaker Paul D. Ryan in battles with President Trump and House Freedom Caucus crazies. Or encourage President Clinton to resist her left wing, tame her own enmity toward Republicans and compromise with Ryan for the common good.
With a net worth of $36.8 billion, Bloomberg is the eighth richest person in America, according to Forbes magazine — at $4.5 billion, Trump comes in at No. 121 — and Bloomberg made it all himself. Bloomberg is a major philanthropist, having given away, so far, $3.7 billion.
Spending $1 billion to save the American political system from extremism would be money well spent, the best philanthropy I can think of.
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