Brad Barket/Getty Images
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has left the Republican party.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has left the Republican party. Brad Barket/Getty Images
New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg made a much-ballyhooed trip to the City of Angels this week, but his big news still came out of the Big Apple, where it was learned the billionaire mayor had officially departed the Republican Party.
Most of the media regarded the mayor's new registration as an all-but-official declaration of independent candidacy. His words say no, but his eyes say yes. Why else would a man worth between $5 billion and $13 billion forsake the only aegis under which he has ever run for office? One might deduce it's time to start printing the Mike in '08 bumperstickers now.
Speculation about his plans has been rampant on the political futures market for many weeks, and you can get any kind of bet on whether he would have a chance to win or simply to spoil. It's also far from clear which party his entry would help or hurt. Polls show him taking votes from Republicans, but strategists can also see him splitting the moderate-to-liberal vote that's expected to turn out after eight years of George W. Bush.
But not so fast. This week's enticing gesture may be more a feint than a fait accompli. And it may not be nearly as dispositive as the rush to judgment. There could be any number of motivations working on this accomplished onetime son of Medford, Mass.
Sure, he would like to be president. But the hard-nosed reporters who travel with him doubt he'll run unless he thinks he can win. Odds are he can't. So what else what might be on his mind?
Let's start with the high road. He says he's leaving the GOP just so he can govern as a post-partisan guy. Maybe that's actually part of his vanity or his value system. This is a guy who paid for both his own campaigns out of his own pocket. And he put plenty into GOP coffers when the party brought its 2004 convention to Manhattan (entirely to make the 9-11 connection). Doesn't that empower him to walk away?
Beyond these contributions, Bloomberg has proven himself a serious man of policy who will raise taxes, tackle the gun lobby and tell people they can't smoke in bars. He's earned the right to criticize Washington for its risk-averse politics.
And let's not forget about ego. It cannot be easy for this proud man to watch so many other New York politicians parade across his TV screen night after night. Even as he has scored substantial successes on the policy front Bloomberg has slipped in the media standings. The hot names these days are New York's Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton and Bloomberg's predecessor in City Hall, Republican Rudy Giuliani. Even Chuck Schumer, the state's other Democratic senator, has claimed considerable airtime by restoring his party's majority in the Senate and leading the charge against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
There aren't many ways for a term-limited mayor of New York to get back on top of the TV news director's priority list. He's got to run against an incumbent officeholder just as famous as he is, or he's got to run for president. And for Bloomberg, that's an easy choice.
For the moment, Bloomberg himself is saying his personal dealignment betokens nothing more than a desire to run his city without recourse to party. He says he wants to serve out his remaining 926 days as mayor. It's a noble thought, and nonetheless so for its comfy fit with other motives he might be mulling right now.
In recent weeks, Bloomberg has stressed his preference for the pragmatic politics practiced in city halls and statehouses over the winner-take-all, beggar-thy-neighbor wars of Washington. At times, his whole agenda has seemed to be more about political means than political ends.
In fact, Bloomberg was in Los Angeles this week to attend what was a billed as the first gathering of the post-partisan era. The event was a conference called "Ceasefire: Bridging the Political Divide," sponsored by the new Center on Communication Leadership at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School.
Sharing the conference stage was co-headliner Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California and another nominal Republican whose recent moves have raised eyebrows and hackles in the GOP. Also on hand were Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, chairman of the National Governors Association and a practicing centrist, and the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, who has put aside his partisan days as a labor organizer and state legislator for the politics of the Big Tent, consensus and compromise.
Each of these executives argued that among their constituents, parties mattered less than getting something done for the people. But they also acknowledged it was easier to do this at home than in Washington, where the constituencies of 50 disparate states were far harder to reconcile than those of a single state.
When Bloomberg's blockbuster hit the wires and airwaves, it seemed at first to have upstaged the conference itself. But in the end, the opposite was true. The speeches and panels had received scant media notice until the word of Bloomberg's move reached the wires and fulltime news cable outlets, which then used fresh file tape from L.A. as B-roll for the "mayor quits party" story.
All the speeches at the USC-Annenberg event plowed the familiar furrow of Washington's failure. And surely the federal government has been a great disappointment to many over a period now stretching back a generation. Yet there remains something precious about watching these bi-coastal heroes lord it over their benighted colleagues in the national capital. Clearly they regard the great diversity and contention of their own respective cities and states as equivalent to any governing challenge in the world. But are they in fact?
How well would Bloomberg, Villaraigosa or Schwarzenegger deal with a national polity? How would they deal with Dixie and its peculiar history, or the dynamics of the Mountain West? What about the centuries-old cities and towns of the Industrial Revolution? Which of these post-partisan heroes is ready to take on all these rival regions at once?
It's one thing to decry the parties for gridlock and the media for their fascination with contention. It's another to put in the years of compromise and disappointment and political risk-taking that lead, now and then, to meaningful breakthroughs.
Perhaps all these post-partisan heroes will have an opportunity to test at the national level the skills and priorities they are so proud to have honed in their current jobs. This is to be devoutly wished. Those of us who wish to see the nation and its capital prosper are eager to see this new, post-partisan generation begin — and succeed.