Friday, February 14, 2020

On The Bloomberg Candidacy

I started out being for Amy. Then I switched to Elizabeth Warren. Then I did a full 180° away from her, favored Amy again and Mike Bloomberg (tentatively), and that's where I stand today. I doubt that my course is aberrant; many people are searching.

But as I'm searching, hoping for the magic bullet that will displace the affliction named Trump and install a high-quality new President, as I listen to what other people think, I worry that Bloomberg's entry into the race is too much of a deus ex machina solution, and maybe I'm overlooking the effect of a billionaire parachuting in. Is it unfair, and is it destructive, just in the way it is being done? Forget his policies for the moment, just look at the method.

That's what I did, and here's what I came up with.

Money and politics have never been strangers to each other – “money is the mother's milk of politics” – and the Michael Bloomberg candidacy has illuminated the connection anew. Rich people have run before, big money has been behind many candidates for a very long time, there have been “kingmakers” with access to money, and even George Washington is reported to have been one of the richest men in the country. But the Bloomberg candidacy is unique. His money is not hidden but in full view, and his bankroll is so immense that he can finance not only his own campaign but the campaigns of many others with no help from others. One man, one bankroll.

I want to examine the criticisms of Bloomberg's campaign, but first, let me briefly mention what some of his proponents say about this kind of campaign. Trump actually made a mendacious defense of his own campaign that could fairly be applied to Bloomberg's – funding ones own campaign avoids entanglements with other funders who will often expect favors in return, if only for access. A second defense is that a very large campaign chest will be necessary to meet Trump's huge cash advantage. Third, proponents rightly declare that Bloomberg's candidacy is not a vanity project, that he is a known political actor who has used his wealth in the past for many worthy causes: gun control, coal factory abatement, public health and hospitals, and many others. Fourth, many welcome his entry to the field as an anyone-but-Trump effort by someone who can arguably win. And finally, many welcome him simply for his qualifications – no candidate rivals him for his combination of private and governmental executive experience, reminding us that New York City has a larger population than 38 of the states.

But those points having been made, others are not so sanguine. Besides criticism on the issues, which I will not take up here, the very fact of a billionaire self-funded candidacy seems to have two basic critiques. One centers simply on his being a member of the billionaire class, who are not to be trusted. The other centers on how the process of running for office is unfairly easier for a billionaire than for someone with more ordinary means. Each observation deserves scrutiny.

Billionaires Are Suspect

Some say that billionaires are objectionable, obnoxious, selfish, exploitative possessors of ill-gotten gain, and probably a lot more. Some say a billionaire will inevitably protect their own interests and the interests of other billionaires, will lower taxes on themselves, maintain their deductions, protect the banks and instruments of capitalistic concentration. Some say they have no feeling for the situation of ordinary people, especially those of color, and will therefore inevitably shortchange them.

I don't know any billionaires personally, but I have no doubt that many billionaires would fit these descriptions. (I love one scientific study that posted observers at a difficult intersection and found that the more expensive cars were more likely than the less expensive cars to disobey the law.) We know that the wealthy and large corporations have lobbied their way to unfair governmental favoritism. To put it the issue more generously, we know that every person has perceptual limitations, and that each person is especially cognizant of conditions of their own background, which is why Sonia Sotomayor and before her, Thurgood Marshall, have been so very valuable on the Supreme Court. Billionaires would be no exception to this rule of thumb.

But while we can be suspicious of how a billionaire might act, we also know how unfair it is to assign attributes of any group to a member of that group – be it gender group, sexual orientation group, religious group, national group, income group, professional group, regional group, political group, racial group. Makimg this assumption is, in fact, the very definition of prejudice. Calling Bloomberg “just another billionaire” is a lazy attribution. For one thing, just look at how different are the billionaires who have been running this last year – Howard Schultz, Tom Steyer, Bloomberg, and (possibly) Trump.
Maybe the most inspirational way to make this point is to cite example of President Franklin Roosevelt. No one could have a more patrician background than FDR, yet no one could have been a better friend to the poor and the working and middle classes than he was. Perhaps triggered by his being afflicted by polio and making friends with the poor white people near Warm Springs, Georgia, whom he befriended when he established his therapeutic community there, certainly reinforced by his equally patrician wife Eleanor, FDR's mission as President was to be a protector of the common person, so much so that he was called “a traitor to his class.”

Would Bloomberg qualify as a neo-FDR? Probably not; who would? But the point is, it's possible, and dismissing Bloomberg as simply “another billionaire” is foolish.

Self-funders Have An Unfair Advantage In Running

It is undoubtedly true that billionaires who self-fund face markedly fewer obstacles to their candidacies in comparison to the usual candidate. The American system of financing political campaigns is in itself unfair and inefficient. Fundraising diverts the time of candidates and congresspeople away from their actual work in policy and politics. The built-in conflicts are obvious, not only for those who take the traditional route of cultivating wealthy donors, but even for those taking only small donations. The poor cannot contribute, and a decision to take only small donations contributes to social conflict – witness the fury against the rich manifested by Sanders and Warren, both of whom refuse large contributions and eschew super-PACs.

(In fact, if you think about it, it's amazing that so much about a campaign is focused on money. How to raise it, who is raising it, who gains favor by it, how people vote with their pocketbooks as to who gets to be on the debate stage, that it is to some extent a microcosm of how much our whole society concentrates on money. It's really quite an indictment of our society, from an anthropological point of view.)

Clearly, a self-funded campaign avoids the pitfalls of raising money that others face. I can well understand the fury of those candidates who have had to scrape and beg for money and been hamstrung by its lack, and who now face the disadvantage of not being able to match, despite their efforts, the huge Bloomberg resources for advertising and campaigning.

Nonetheless, can one really say that he is “buying the nomination?” I think not. If so, Schultz and Steyer would be more relevant. Yes, you can buy access and attention, but the voters still have to like what is presented to them, and the media will give free rein to those who would criticize.

Moreover, if one could buy the nomination, why didn't Bloomberg come in early and sweep the field preemptively? He did quite the opposite, waiting until is was almost too late. When his early analysis led him to conclude that he was an unlikely winner – despite his resources – he let the game play out without him. It was only when Biden showed weakness and Sanders showed strength that Bloomberg concluded that he was needed, and that he had a chance.

Moreover, it's not only billionaires who have enhanced access to running. What about movie actors? Their fame provides access, which can be viewed as unfair – what does fame have to do with governing? But they have not been able to sweep into office any more than Bloomberg can, although if they perform well they can be elected. Generals have also had access to nominations that others don't enjoy, and some have measured up while others haven't. Bloomberg is not just some random billionaire who thought to himself, hey, it would be nice to be President. He is arguably one of the best prepared people in our history to take on the job.

Conclusion and Suggestion

So, in sum, I think it's hard to say that Bloomberg has no business using his money to leverage himself into the race. He will still have to sell himself to the people, and it might be an uphill battle. In the end, he will have to prove himself acceptable as a prospective President, and as someone who would have the total capacity to beat Donald Trump. If he can prove himself worthy, we shouldn't deny him the nomination just because he is a billionaire. We shouldn't cut off our nose to spite our face.

Finally, presumptuously, let me offer a couple of suggestions.

I have always been taken by the brave way JFK chose to address the Catholic issue in 1960, when he gave his famous Houston speech to the Protestant ministers, asserting that a Catholic could be a good President, and how he received a standing ovation. I don't think Bloomberg has Kennedy's oratorical gift, but it might make sense for him to give a speech “Why I Am Not A Bad Billionaire.” He could take on the issues directly – Will I try to protect my billions and those of my rich friends? Why are my taxes better than Warren's wealth tax? What objectives of Bernie and Elizabeth and the other candidates do I share? (I would go for anti-trust and universal health care with lower copays and deductibles)?

Then I would take Amy Klobuchar's example of FDR's poor mourner, “I didn't know him, but he knew me.” I would praise Amy for citing that. I would say, we should all aspire to that. Then I'd say, none of us can be everything, so we all need to work together to give the country leadership. I see huge strengths in this party and in the other candidates. My hope would be to assemble us all as a team, to overcome the depredations of the last four years, to return to lawfulness, to return to decency, to return to humanity, to correct the course of this country, to raise the level of our prosperity for everyone, to become an ever fairer country, to be good global citizens, and to establish an order of dealing with the environment in a way that will last beyond our years.

I have no idea what kind of a President Bloomberg would make, or if any of the suggestions I make here will turn out to make sense for him. I'm hopeful. I'd love to see a good President come in. And it's vital, of course, to beat Trump and to foil his ongoing coup.

But we shall see.

Budd Shenkin

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