/OK Bloomberg

OK Bloomberg

Michael R. Bloomberg

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Altitude

Billions of dollars won’t guarantee him a place in the Democratic race. Providing a cohesive centrist message would.

Altitude is a column by POLITICO founding editor John Harris, offering weekly perspective on politics in a moment of radical disruption.

Now that Mike Bloomberg signaled late Thursday more clearly than ever his interest in becoming president, the former New York mayor needs a pithy catch phrase. I worked overnight on words designed to capture the excitement and hopeful spirit of his imminent campaign.

“I am a smart guy with good intentions who has been super-successful and could actually win and it would be cool and I’d go a good job.”

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Thoughts?….Please, don’t worry about my feelings. Still needs work, doesn’t it?

Take the plunge, Mayor Bloomberg. There is a clear if narrow opening for a candidate who can compellingly represent the party’s moderate wing in the Democratic nomination fight. I am skeptical, on early evidence, about how he would actually propose to fill it.

Democrats who fear that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are too liberal on policy and too divisive on politics to beat Donald Trump are definitely in need of something. But it is not (or not primarily) an accomplished biography or a swirl of speculation and media frenzy about a sudden plot twist in the long campaign. Or assertions about presumed electability based on blurry logic and the warning from Bloomberg spokesman Howard Wolfson that “Mike is increasingly concerned that the current field is not well positioned” to win.

What these centrists need is an idea.

Bloomberg is worth billions, but these will not address the real impoverishment of Democratic moderates. The practical questions—can he attract African-Americans? What is the possibility of a brokered convention?—won’t matter unless he can answer a strategic one. Can he take his obviously sincere voice on issues like climate change and gun control and elevate that into a plausible agenda?

There has been a huge disparity in the Democratic race so far. On the left, Warren and Sanders have been forceful and effective voices for large ideas. They haven’t just offered policy plans—highly polarizing ones—but embedded these plans in a coherent worldview about the country’s problems, the remedies they seek, and how these reflect their view of the historical moment.

From the center, there has been no equivalent argument. Part of the reason is that Joe Biden is inarticulate in expressing his larger philosophy. He seems to have a tactile mind that thinks about people and bills and deals but doesn’t gravitate to ideas. Despite misgivings about his skills as a candidate, he has loomed large as frontrunner and blocked light that other centrists might have used to organize an idea-driven campaign.

What is all this prattle I’m babbling about ideas? They are an under-appreciated dimension of national politics—not a think-tank abstraction but a brutally practical instrument in the fight for power.

Trump’s swagger and flamboyance, obviously, is an essential part of his appeal to supporters, but garish performance alone would not work unless it was harnessed to a few genuine ideas about trade, endless wars and perceptions among supporters about national decline. John McCain in 2008 had a biography that was far more heroic in traditional terms than Barack Obama’s. This mattered little compared to how Obama weaved his own life story into a larger argument about reversing George W. Bush’s presidency, celebrating diversity and beginning a new season of activist government in Washington.

None of the moderates in the Democratic field has yet achieved similar coherence. Arguments about the merits of ideas they believe in have been secondary to arguments about electoral calculations. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has talked about how her Midwestern sensibility allows her to back gun restrictions and still win the support of Minnesota hunters and even Trump-backing miners on the Iron Range. Sen. Michael Bennet has warned that Democrats can’t win his state of Colorado or similar purple states if they back mandatory Medicare for All. Sen. Kamala Harris has boasted about how her prosecutorial gifts will throw Trump back on his heels.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg sometimes engages ideas, as he did on Twitter in September when he posted: “I’d say neoliberalism is the political-economic consensus that has governed the last forty years of policy in the US and UK. Its failure helped to produce the Trump moment. Now we have to replace it with something better.”

That sounds intriguing. It also sounds more like the bright Harvard undergraduate he was not too long ago rather than the credibly top-tier presidential candidate he is trying to be now. It’s not clear what those words actually mean.

In part, this incoherence is because moderates do not want to be too coherent. They are worried, plausibly, about liberal activists in such ascendancy this year, that it would be folly to anger them.

In larger part, though, the dynamic reflects the difficulty that centrists often have in projecting an authentic voice.

The important reference point on this question is Bill Clinton. In 1992, after three elections in which Democrats were routed as liberal and out-of-touch with mainstream values, he won by portraying himself as moderate “New Democrat.” Even among his own team, there was debate about how much he really meant it.

A group connected to the Democratic Leadership Council—a predecessor to the current group Third Way—took comfort in the belief that Clinton was sincere in his embrace of centrist policy ideas. A group of West Wing liberals took comfort in the belief that Clinton was phony—that his New Democratic language was mainly posturing to reassure swing voters and fuzz over his real agenda.

I always believed he was sincere. It was notable that he began his campaign with a series of speeches at Georgetown University in the fall of 1991 that touched less on specific policy proposals than on his appraisal of the historical moment and emphasized overarching themes of opportunity, responsibility and community. Throughout his presidency, even the most expressly political speeches contained passages, replete with historical references, explaining not just what he believed but why he believed it.

Reporters sometimes got bored with the abstraction and repetition. But the grounding in ideas and history gave his voice a timbre that was an important part of his appeal. Those Georgetown speeches, by the way, were heavily influenced by a then-young DLC aide, Bruce Reed, who later became a top aide to Clinton and later still the chief of staff to Vice President Biden. Reed remains a player on the Biden team, and it is a puzzle why Biden has not attempted to follow the Clinton precedent.

For now, Bloomberg is surely holding his breath right now. One small-city mayor who entered the 2020 contest, Buttigieg, has been greeted with bouquets for being an impressive young man. One big-city mayor, Bill de Blasio, was shooed from the race with taunts of being a cranky middle-aged man with no business in the race.

Meanwhile, one politically minded billionaire, liberal hedge fund veteran Tom Steyer, at least for the moment has found a modest place for himself in the Democratic race. Another politically minded billionaire, Howard Schultz, who flirted with a centrist independent candidacy, backed off the idea after angry jeers and derision from Democrats and scant enthusiasm from anyone else.

If Bloomberg hopes to be heard in 2020, the best way to do it would be to have something to say.

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