Let us start with the basics: if this November’s presidential election ends up as a race between Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump, American progressives must spare no effort to get Bloomberg elected. Trump denies climate change, stymies gun control, brutalises migrants, trashes the country’s democratic norms and treats its international alliances as his playthings. Bloomberg does none of that, nor would he as president. The self-made financial data tycoon is unquestionably preferable to the inheritance-squandering property tycoon. To equate them, as some on the left are doing, is an unpardonable act of self-indulgence.
Such a showdown is now becoming thinkable. Bloomberg’s bid for the Democratic nomination initially seemed a long shot. The former New York City mayor is not even contending the first four primary and caucus states: having missed Iowa and New Hampshire, he will now skip Nevada and South Carolina and enter the race only on 3 March, when 14 states vote on Super Tuesday. With erstwhile frontrunner Joe Biden faltering and Bernie Sanders leading a relatively crowded race, Bloomberg hopes to sweep up moderate support. He is focusing on the 38 per cent possibility (according to the latest forecast) that no single candidate will secure a majority, leading to a brokered Democratic convention in July, at which he might beat Sanders.
Bloomberg has three things on his side: his mayoral record, his centre-left overtures to primary voters and his money. But when you step back, the third of these factors towers above the others like the Empire State Building over midtown Manhattan. As mayor he fixed some problems but also used racially insensitive stop-and-search practices and presided over soaring inequality. His pledges to tax the rich, work towards universal health care and be a “champion” for women sit awkwardly with past comments calling regressive taxes a “good thing”, Barack Obama’s affordable health initiative “a disgrace” and, allegedly, women all sorts of things that his spokesperson denies, while conceding that his boss has used “disrespectful and wrong” language. No wonder progressives doubt his instincts.
That leaves Bloomberg’s money – and what money. In the final quarter of 2019 he spent $188m, more than all the other presidential contenders (including Trump) combined. Now, in what the New York Times calls a “waterfall of cash”, he is hiring staffers at twice the standard salaries, throwing lavish campaign events and taking his total advertising outlay to $350m, including a single $10m advert during the Super Bowl. That is making him a presence in the Democratic race, with moderate candidate Amy Klobuchar claiming he is hiding “behind airwaves and huge ad buys” and Sanders accusing him of thinking “he can buy this election”.
The best case for Bloomberg is the scenario with which I started: one in which liberals and leftists back him as the least-worst option, leaving him free to woo moderate Republicans. It is a similar strategy to that applied by Emmanuel Macron against the far-right Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential run-off in 2017. Yet there are notable differences. Bloomberg has more baggage than Macron did then, making him more likely to suppress turnout on the left. He is a less capable public speaker, making him less likely to persuade middle-ground waverers. And in Trump, an incumbent president tolerated by much of the centre right and backed by a professional machine, he faces a more formidable opponent than Le Pen. A national poll conducted in early February gives Bloomberg a 51-42 per cent lead in a run-off with Trump – good, but little different from Sanders on 51-43.
And if he wins, then what? Trump’s presidency is one of various disasters afflicting a country wrought by dysfunction. US society is broken: its public realm is crumbling, the opioid epidemic is ongoing, and average life expectancy has fallen for three successive years. In a new World Economic Forum ranking of countries by social mobility the US comes 27th – its score is closer to those of oligopolies such as Russia and Kazakhstan than to those of social market economies such as Germany.
Its politics is also broken: the US’s little-trusted federal institutions are paralysed by lobbying and tribalism. The result, as the economist Thomas Philippon argues in his book The Great Reversal, is that American capitalism is becoming gradually less competitive and its industries more concentrated; its productivity and investment growth rates are low, its market entrants disadvantaged and its consumers overcharged (mobile phones, air fares, internet and other staples are cheaper in more open European markets). Someone needs to come along and switch the US off and on again.
Bloomberg does not look like that person. He boasts, like Trump before him, that his self-funded campaign means there is no reliance on donors. But his attempt to spend his way to the White House via the sort of billionaire-on-billionaire election more commonly associated with post-Soviet plutocracies represents just another fistful of cash rammed down the gullet of a system drowning in money. It paves the way for other, more malign billionaires to buy the presidency in the future.
Moreover, Bloomberg’s bid to resurrect the policy settlement of the pre-Trump era and fiddle with some of the symptoms of inequality compares dismally with, say, Elizabeth Warren’s ambitious plans to bust trusts, defang lobbyists and inject real competition back into the economy. Trump will not be the last demagogic product of the US’s economic, societal and political sickness unless drastic medicine is administered – medicine that Doctor Mike, whatever his chances in this election, is unlikely to prescribe.
This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics