Friday, June 22, 2007

BOB HERBERT: Mr. Mayor, the Nader of ’08?

A huge ego and a few billion dollars can cause an awful lot of mischief.

Michael Bloomberg is weighing a possible run for the White House. This is frightening for a couple of reasons. First, consider the prospect of a half-billion-dollars worth of 30-second Bloomberg-for-president ads running all day and all night on television screens in every part of the country.

Americans of every persuasion will have images of the mayor of New York all but burned into their retinas.

For Democrats, the other reason is much more frightening. If Mr. Bloomberg actually decides to run, he risks becoming the Ralph Nader of 2008, drawing votes away from the Democratic nominee and helping to install yet another Republican in the White House.

(Mr. Nader is also making noises about running next year, but it’s generally agreed that Mr. Bloomberg has a much more credible shot at being a spoiler.)

The main thing to keep in mind about Mr. Bloomberg is that he is a Democrat. He changed parties and registered as a Republican for tactical reasons when he ran for mayor in 2001. But he was a Republican in name only. He did not change his political philosophy, and he has continued to pursue the kind of policies you would expect from a Democrat.

As Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant, said this week in a reference to Mr. Bloomberg: “If you closed your eyes and you were told that someone was pro-public education, pro-choice, pro-immigration rights, pro-gun control, pro-civil rights, pro-gay rights and pro-women’s rights — you would be pretty happy if you were a Democrat.”

So whatever political banner he may be waving at any given time (he’s now calling himself an independent), Mr. Bloomberg is a Democrat. If he runs for president, he is far more likely to take votes from the Democratic nominee than the Republican one.

That’s why, for all the talk about the feuding between the Bloomberg and Giuliani camps, it’s the leading Democratic candidates who are the most unhappy about the possibility of a Bloomberg candidacy. A number of individuals close to Bill and Hillary Clinton said this week that a Bloomberg presidential run would have an especially harmful effect on Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, which, if anything, has been strengthening of late.

“He definitely hurts us,” said one dismayed Clinton supporter, who added: “You know, sometimes politicians have such big egos they can’t see reality. But Bloomberg is known for seeing reality. So he must know that if he runs he puts a Republican in the White House, which I don’t think he wants.”

The mayor would draw votes from people who want change, who are interested in something different, a new direction. Right now, almost by definition, such voters are Democrats, or independents and Republicans who are inclined to vote for a Democrat. These are voters upset not just by the war in Iraq and the demonstrated incompetence of the Bush administration, but by a variety of other major issues.

“They’re very anxious about a perceived decline in America’s fortunes,” said Mr. Lehane, “about the loss of the American dream for the middle class, the rise of China, global warming, the effect of technology on people’s lives, nuclear proliferation. I think these anxiety voters, who don’t feel that politics is working for them, are going to be the swing voters next year.”

Mr. Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire with a reputation for speaking his mind and a carefully crafted message of political independence, could be very appealing to some of those voters. But not to enough of them to win. And that is the flaw in the enormous trial balloon sent up by Mr. Bloomberg this week when he let it be known that he had abandoned his marriage-of-convenience to the Republican Party and would henceforth officially be independent.

You will find very few people who honestly believe that Mr. Bloomberg can win the presidency. So the crucial issue if he were to run would be the impact he has on the race.

He may not run. He may be enjoying the burst of attention his trial balloon has attracted. He may see this heightened attention as a way to amplify his voice nationally.

There are myriad ways this thing could play out. But the weirdest would be if Michael Bloomberg, who sees himself as such a serious person, plunged headlong into this race with little or no chance to win, and ended up spending $500 million to $1 billion on a venture that undermined the core issues and values he claims to believe in.

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