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Romney vs. Bloomberg: Can the Super-Rich Really Govern?

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In 2001, when Michael Bloomberg, then mainly a Wall Street icon, ran for Mayor of New York City, he was viewed with considerable suspicion. After all, how could an aloof billionaire really relate to the nitty-gritty problems of ordinary New Yorkers and address their concerns with compassion?

Three terms and a decade later, Bloomberg proved everyone wrong. By combining social progressiveness, fiscal conservatism, a broad vision, and hard-headed pragmatism, he showed that he could understand the problems of New York, no matter how small, and solve them. In other words, despite his wealth, he did not live in an ivory tower but on the streets and sidewalks of his city, and could apply sound business principles to the public sector without compromising the interests of working-class people.

On the face of it, Mitt Romney has a similar story. A Republican, a successful businessman, a fiscal conservative, and a little aloof from the electorate, he could be another Bloomberg in the making. Bloomberg brought his sharp business acumen and strong organizational skills to the running of a city and Romney wants to do the same for the country. Also, like the New York Mayor, he faces the problem of being a millionaire candidate -- a member of the elite 1% wanting to lead the remaining 99%. Skepticism is high and hijinks like Romney's refusing to release tax returns, defending his mercenary business model at Bain Capital, and being cagey about his offshore bank accounts don't help.

So, if given a chance, might he surprise us all by doing a fantastic job as President, in the same way that Bloomberg defeated expectations? Perhaps, but unlikely. Luckily, Romney was Governor of Massachusetts before running for President so we have some data points. Let's compare the two men to see how they stack up on the public service scale.

In his first term in office, Bloomberg achieved a rare victory -- taking control of the city's failing school system, imposing stricter standards on educators and holding the schools accountable for performance. While there have certainly been misfires and scandals (like allegations of test-tampering) during the Mayor's tenure, the City has continued a relentless march towards improvement of its education system. Bloomberg's other big victory has been his ability to steer his city through two massive recessions by being both fiscally disciplined and yet responsive to public needs; he proposed an increase in property taxes in his first term, raised the sales tax in his second term, cut jobs in his third term (but kept taxes steady), and has agreed with the City Council on a 2013 budget that would avoid tax increases, firehouse closings and big layoffs. In addition to this, the Mayor has also run aggressive campaigns against illegal gun trafficking and obesity, which have won him few points politically but are good for the city.

On one hand, Romney too emphasized education in his time as governor; he established college scholarship programs for top-performing high school students, recruited skilled math and science instructors, and created new intervention programs for public schools. Yet he also slashed millions in funding for K-12 education and state universities. Romney was also not averse to raising sales taxes or imposing business fees, and claimed that he was leaving Massachusetts with a large budget surplus in 2007. However, his successor, Deval Patrick, has challenged Romney's numbers and complained that Romney's policies led to deficits in the following years. In addition, a lot of the state's earlier surpluses came at a heavy price of deep cuts to public services and programs, something Romney has always glossed over. On the jobs front, Romney's performance was dismal, showing only 39,000 jobs added from the time he actually took office in January 2003 through December 2006, which did little to replace the approximately 200,000 jobs lost in Massachusetts during the previous recession. This is particularly ironic given Romney's claims about his impressive record of job-creation at Bain.

It would be extreme to say that Romney made no effort to help Massachusetts as governor, but it would be safe to say that, unlike Bloomberg, his focus was not on the actual needs of the wider population but on winning the political game behind it instead; of posturing and rhetoric. What this tells us is that while Bloomberg may live personally in a rarefied world of wealth and privilege, he can still empathize with the common man; Romney, on the other hand, is woefully out of touch with average Americans and has no clue about the challenges that they face.

Fast forwarding to the presidential campaign, Romney is so ideologically entrenched that he refuses to even consider a different point of view. In debacle after debacle, it is becoming increasingly apparent that he is the millionaire candidate who is more millionaire than candidate. In his Darwinian view of America, only the strongest deserve to survive and so it is unnecessary for government to do anything to help those who cannot help themselves. It is a dangerously narrow view that does not belong in the White House.

Ironically, Bloomberg is vastly more successful than Romney and, unlike the latter, staunchly self-made. No silver spoons, no famous daddies, helped Bloomberg along in his career; instead, he made his money by creating something -- unlike Romney whose wealth comes primarily from investing activities. Given all this, one would expect someone like Bloomberg to be much more elitist and unforgiving of weakness than Romney, but that's where reality diverges from expectation.

While Bloomberg's constituency is all of New York City, Romney's constituency seems to be his wealthy donors and corporate contributors. While Bloomberg believes in fiscal restraint but not in gutting his city in the process, Romney has sworn to cut every government program in sight to lower the deficit -- even while the nation struggles with recession and high unemployment.
Simply put, Bloomberg is a businessman who became a public servant but Romney is a businessman who intends to turn public service into a business; and there is a big difference between those two things.

Romney's experience in the private sector might help him run our country and turn around our economy, but not without empathy for the 99%. His positions speak loudly in this regard: a candidate who wants to cut taxes for the wealthy during an economic downturn, repeal healthcare that can provide relief to millions of Americans, loosen financial regulations that are sorely needed to protect us from another crisis like the one in 2008, and cut public services, welfare, and anything that does not support a "corporate" agenda, is hardly a man of the people.

It remains to be seen who Bloomberg endorses for president, and in the end his choice will come down to the comparison between Obama and Romney, but I hope that he will keep in mind that whatever his views on Obama's performance, Romney most certainly does not represent the principles that he himself stands for. They may both be wealthy, but that's where the similarity ends.

Sanjay Sanghoee has worked at leading investment banks and hedge funds. He has also written two novels. Please visit www.sanghoee.com for more details and to sign up for updates.