Some years back, the late William F. Buckley, Jr. and his late wife Pat were hosting a get-together in their Manhattan home. At one point, the formidable Mrs. Buckley approached New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, drew deeply from her lit cigarette and blew a copious plume of smoke in his face. “Mr. Mayor, may I smoke in my own house?” she asked.
Doubtless the Mayor is still pondering the question. Since he took office six years ago, Mike Bloomberg’s record is, among other things, a study in finicky prohibition. Not only is Bloomberg certain of what’s best for you, he knows you to lack the good sense to choose it. In order to ensure the well being of his charges, the Mayor has instituted a few laws about which he has said, “People will adjust very quickly and a lot of lives will be saved.” Has an American politician ever expressed a more vitally un-American sentiment? Dubious claims of life-saving aside, American citizens aren’t to be schoolmarmed into compulsory purification.
Yet, in 2002, brushing off a few cranky editorials, Mayor Mike instituted a smoking ban that covered every public New York City workplace including all restaurants, bars, cabarets, and pool halls. In 2007, he enacted the country’s first municipal ban on trans fats in restaurant food. With their appetites regulated and a chunk of their free choice under lock and key at Gracie Mansion, denizens of the vice-free five boroughs have been, presumably, “adjusting.”
Citizens of the larger United States, however, are not yet so lucky as to have their diets and recreational habits reviewed for state sanctioning. In a February 29 New York Times op-ed, Mayor Bloomberg made the heart-breaking (and presumably heart-clogging) announcement that he is not at this time seeking the office of president of the United States. But, he did offer this as consolation:
In the weeks and months ahead, I will continue to work to steer the national conversation away from partisanship and toward unity; away from ideology and toward common sense; away from sound bites and toward substance. And while I have always said I am not running for president, the race is too important to sit on the sidelines, and so I have changed my mind in one area. If a candidate takes an independent, nonpartisan approach — and embraces practical solutions that challenge party orthodoxy — I’ll join others in helping that candidate win the White House.
Setting aside Hizzoner’s logical non-sequitur — which posits caring about the election as contradicting his vow not to run — let’s break down his pledge to the country: No longer content to sit on the fence, he now vows to support the first candidate who ignores things like ideology and is willing to make nice. Not the weightiest proclamation, is it?
But it’s certainly a characteristic one for Mayor Mike. After all, Bloomberg’s micro-managerial approach to the lives of private citizens has a necessary flipside: the unfettered license of those who govern. I first picked up on this in 2002 when Bloomberg was challenged on the wisdom of his taking the controls of a New York City Police helicopter. The public servant’s response? “‘I fly helicopters more sophisticated than that all the time that I happen to own.” Bloomberg himself can’t be bothered with the constraints of party obligation. He operates instead with a sort of trans-partisan utility, adopting temporary labels as needed. Previously a Democrat, he avoided the certain dogfight of the 2001 Democratic primary by switching to the Republican Party. Fast-forward to 2005 when he was re-elected and you’ll find him dropping his GOP party membership.
So, for Mike Bloomberg “independence” is an entitlement that comes with leadership. Sadly, for his supporters it’s a soft-focus dream about how to move beyond all the political differences that plague our nation. How many times have I heard Bloomberg’s fans praise him as the only person who can move beyond the partisan rancor that has our polity locked in disagreement? The thing that Bloomberg and his fans miss is that disagreement is important, and the fetishization of unity is dangerous.
As evidence of the untenable (and undesirable) consequences that come with playing nice at all costs, look at Bloomberg’s own history on the most important issue facing the U.S. today: Iraq. When not deflecting the war question because it’s “not a local issue” the man who was considering the presidency has babbled on every side of the debate, depending on the nation’s feelings at that time. As the Advocate reports: in 2004, he came to Laura Bush’s defense at a joint press conference, telling the room of reporters: ”Don’t forget that the war started not very many blocks from here.” Before long, he was cutting his losses by “supporting the troops.” Additionally, when asked if the president lied about WMD Bloomberg said he had no idea. He’s since lambasted those who want to withdraw and also called for a “resolution” to the war — without proposing a thing. This isn’t unity; it’s complete dissolution. And it’s what Bloomberg is calling upon the candidates to endorse.
In meta-Bloomberg fashion his Times op-ed is wishy-washy about which presumptive frontrunner he finds satisfactorily wishy-washy. If Bloomberg is seeking the embodiment of his fantastical post-partisan unity dream then Barack Obama is his man. But if he’s looking for someone with a concrete record of crossing the aisle in order to get things done, then John McCain is the obvious choice. It well may be the case, however, that neither man fits the bill. Mike Bloomberg demands that people conform to his idiosyncratic standards. Using his personal health-and-well-being blueprint, the mayor has tried to remake New York. As neither Obama nor McCain are City residents, he’ll have a hard time getting them to comply with this latest directive.
Then again, if his sole criterion in picking a favorite is really the challenge they present to party orthodoxy, Mike Bloomberg needs to get out there right now and lend Ralph Nader one of his fancy helicopters. There’s a lot of time to be made up.
Abe Greenwald is the assistant online editor at Commentary.