Every four years, about a year or so before the presidential election, a crack opens in the two-party road to the White House, and suddenly everyone is talking about the possibility of a serious Independent Candidate for the presidency. Something in our dysfunctional political process seems to conjure the Independent Candidate out of thin air and then keep him or her afloat, at least for a while. Consider: One-third of the electorate identifies with neither the Ds nor the Rs; super- majorities think the nominating process takes too long and is too dominated by big money and special interests; and the major candidates frequently avoid controversial issues. These are conditions that have fostered the election of independent governors in a handful of states (Connecticut, Maine and Minnesota are the recent cases). So the notion of a viable Independent Candidate is not pure fantasy.
Sometimes the major-party candidates are so cravenly bland or neglectful of a constituency that they propel an alienated outsider into making a run for office. Think George Wallace in 1968, breaking with the Democrats on civil rights; John Anderson in 1980, breaking with the Republicans over their rising alliance with the religious right; Ross Perot in 1992, breaking with both parties on their failure to tame the deficit; or Ralph Nader in 2000, breaking with the rightward retreat of the Clinton/Gore Democrats. Unfortunately, these sorts of candidates have either been too ideologically cranky to galvanize the angry middle of the American electorate into a real force, or they've just been true cranks.
Sometimes the buzz is about little more than celebrities' idle comments, or their concurrent need to sell something, like themselves. Think of the second half of 1999, when Warren Beatty, Donald Trump and Cybill Shepherd all allowed their names to be floated as possible candidates for the ill-fated Reform Party's nomination, or the fall of 1995, when Colin Powell teased the press about his intentions while he hawked his autobiography. Add in the media's never-ending need to sell papers and attract eyeballs, and you often get a silly season of speculation about the chances of so-and-so to slide into the Oval Office.
In June New York City's billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he was changing his party affiliation from Republican to independent, to "bring...my affiliation into alignment with how I have led and will continue to lead my city," he said. That was all it took for the crack to open in the 2008 race, and something tells me that this time we are going to see the Independent Candidate gambit played by a pro who knows exactly what he is doing.
An actual Bloomberg effort to get onto the ballot in 2008 is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. As a longtime Democrat who only switched to the Republican Party to leapfrog past a crowded and divisive Democratic primary into the general election for mayor in 2001, Bloomberg is reportedly not interested in damaging the chances of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama entering the White House. He's been quoted asking, "What chance does a five-foot-seven billionaire Jew who's divorced really have of becoming president?" He enjoys his privacy and spends many weekends away from the city, often in Bermuda (where neighbors of his 6,000-square-foot "cottage" reportedly include not only Perot but Italian poli-mogul Silvio Berlusconi). The odds that he would risk all that on an expensive bid for an office he might not win and a job that would drain him if he did are very low, in my view.
But Bloomberg doesn't actually have to run for president to tilt the race his way, the classic and most beneficial role of any maverick or third-party candidate. That is, at least for the next 10 months, when the first hard deadlines for ballot access close (in Texas). All he has to do is talk about his willingness to spend a half-billion dollars on a possible bid, visit some swing states every now and then and make a speech about how it's more important to deliver effective government than score partisan points, and perhaps put a few consultants on retainer (I know of two people who keep themselves on call for him), and he will have maximized his leverage over the national debate at minimal cost. That is a move worthy of the businessman he is.
Merely by toying with a run, Bloomberg -- who registered between 10 and 15 percent in the polls after he announced his change of party -- can force the major candidates to pay attention to issues dear to his heart. Fortunately, many of them are sensible, like gun control, progressive immigration reform, reducing carbon emissions, trying new ways to break the poverty cycle and transparency in government. Even though he trampled civil rights when the Republican convention was held in New York City, and his police force continues to take an authoritarian approach toward free speech and assembly, Bloomberg has tried to calm, not fan, fears of terrorism. We could do a lot worse, given how many megalomaniacal billionaires this country seems to produce.
"I'm particularly upset that the big issues of the time keep getting pushed to the back, and we focus on small things that probably only inside the Beltway are important," he said June 19 after his announcement. "When you talk to people around this country, they care about who's going to pay their Social Security, they care about who's going to pay their medical care, they care about immigration, about our reputation overseas. Nobody is willing to talk about those things. And I think that that's exactly what the candidates should do. I'm going to speak out on those issues, and by not being affiliated with the party I think I'm going to have a better opportunity to do that."
My main regret about Bloomberg's taking over the role of Independent Candidate is that it is not being done in a way that builds small-d democratic capacity to influence the process -- especially at a time when the Internet makes "sideways-up" organizing more viable than ever. Bloomberg's billions give a lot of people an excuse to stay home instead of doing the grassroots work to build a broad challenge to the entrenched interests that dominate the major parties. In that, he is bad news for the vainglorious efforts of Unity08, the brainchild of a couple of well-meaning political consultants who are seeking to marshal a million cyber-delegates to nominate an independent slate for 2008. He doesn't need them.
Yes, the blogs are talking about Bloomberg today, but he's talking at us, not with us. He may have made his money selling high-priced computer terminals and data, but his approach to technology and the Internet is all top-down. His vaunted "311" universal phone number has indeed improved city services, but the communication is all one way. In 2001 Bloomberg capped his $74 million campaign by mailing a videotape of his final campaign commercial to every household; in 2005 his re-election campaign had the best micro-targeting database services that money could buy. If anything, his entry onto the edge of the playing field will further accelerate the presidential money chase, giving an advantage to buckmeisters like Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney over other contenders, putting serious pressure on Obama and draining funds from down-ballot candidates as a side effect.
Not that there isn't room in this election cycle for a sane Perot to spend his way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg writes in the latest issue of The American Prospect, while conservatives and Republicans have never been more discredited in years, their reign of error has badly damaged America's confidence in government's ability to do anything right. He notes that more than six out of 10 Americans say they believe elected officials don't care what people like them think, and that when something is run by the government it is probably inefficient and wasteful. The current gridlock between Capitol Hill Democrats and the Bush White House only makes things worse. And the sight of committee chairs like David Obey defending the pork-barrel process as brazenly as any of his Republican predecessors doesn't help either. Says Greenberg: "The odds are high that both Republicans and Democrats will end up staring down the barrel of a real third-party movement or a Perot-like candidate, which could dramatically affect presidential and Congressional races in 2008."
If you think that is impossible, you don't remember how quickly Perot caught fire in 1992. Six months ago Congressional Democrats promised the electorate change, but now they seem bogged down not just by Iraq but by the pressures of satisfying their own parochial interests. They still have a chance to rectify matters by enacting real changes in how government works and by doing some real housecleaning to demonstrate that accountability is more than a nice slogan. It's fun to imagine that the specter of Bloomberg's entry into the race may help Capitol Hill Democrats focus on the task at hand. I, for one, am not holding my breath.
Originally posted at thenation.com.