Can Michael Bloomberg save the planet?

Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg
Julie Angel Saad/Shutterstock

Can Michael Bloomberg save the planet?

Competence, climate action and political bravery could be a recipe for success in the White House.
November 7, 2018

Lying in bed in the dead of night, gripped by anxiety because our president is unmoored, it seems almost impossible to contemplate another four years under this president. The dangers and obscenities flowing from the White House each day have triggered a state of panic among Democrats, and more than a few Republicans. What if flipping the House isn’t enough? What if this kamikaze presidency is extended past 2020?

It is through this prism of intense fear that the coming 2020 presidential race has assumed an existential quality. But for the moment, let’s do an experiment and think about not just who can extricate Donald Trump from the Oval Office but rather who can best right this foundering ship if he or she is elected.

As a field of well-known Democrats plant their stakes along the ideological spectrum, Michael Bloomberg looms as a wild card. He is testing the waters for a presidential run, airing commercials and touring primary states after pouring a fortune into congressional and Senate campaigns. A man capable of spending vast sums of his own money on a campaign is not to be taken lightly, and he has proved in the past to be an enormously successful politician, contrary to characterizations of him as a mogul who just happened to run New York City for 12 years.

Much has been written about the former mayor’s moderate politics (or what Vanity Fair calls “his stubborn brand of plutocratic centrism,” whatever that means). The moderate tag is intended as a kiss of death for a Democratic candidate in these partisan times. But the reality is more complicated. His dark pinstripe suits notwithstanding, Bloomberg’s actions in his post-mayoralty years have shown that he is an unmovable advocate for causes that many other Democrats have been afraid to touch.

As an unabashed Wall Street guy and a former Republican (even if in name only), the former mayor is bound to be viewed with suspicion by liberals. Yet that hardly squares with his relentless pursuit of two of the most elusive liberal causes: passing stricter gun control laws and fighting to cut greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. The conventional wisdom is that those issues can lose elections – particularly national general elections. But perhaps a never-ending plague of hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other calamities will reopen the debate over global warming. Perhaps rising disgust over rampaging gunmen creating carnage in school classrooms will tilt the gun debate by a modicum. Maybe Bloomberg won’t win. But what if he does?

It is a measure of this tragic moment in our politics that a United Nations panel recently concluded that we have roughly 20 years to save the Earth and virtually nobody is still talking about it. In a rational time, the news would trigger crisis measures in Washington, and the campaign for president would be dominated by the climate emergency. Perhaps a Bloomberg campaign will be the only way to focus the debate where it belongs.

Climate action and gun control are two issues that are core to who Bloomberg has become since leaving City Hall in 2013. Everytown for Gun Safety, financed with $50 million of his own money, is the first gun control organization in history to come close to the breadth of the National Rifle Association. On climate change, Bloomberg has made it his mission to undo the damage from the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, and he leads a United Nations effort to raise $100 billion a year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There is every reason for him to play down his activism on these two issues if he runs, and virtually no chance that he will. Bloomberg’s disdain for political games was apparent to anyone who observed him from inside or outside City Hall during his mayoralty – I did both as a political reporter and as senior adviser to Bloomberg’s schools chancellor. Whether you were a fan of his or not, chances are you never viewed him as a slave to public opinion. No leader who lived and died by his poll numbers would have fought so hard at the time to legalize gay marriage, prohibit  oversized sodas or ban cellphones from schools.

The job that will fall to the president who succeeds Donald Trump will be unlike any in recent presidential history. He or she would inherit the largest budget deficit in history, a health care system butchered and battered by scattershot fixes from the White House and Congress, a country at war with itself over nationalism, immigration and race relations, and a whole lot of angry world leaders who no longer consider the U.S. the undisputed leader of the free world.

These aren’t problems suited for an inspirational, Barack Obama-style leader. They are the result of a ransacking, a mess created by people who desecrated a majestic house, enjoyed it for their own benefit and left it trashed for someone else to clean up. At that point, the nation might be relieved to have a problem-solver as its leader.

Bloomberg would once again be succeeding a divisive and bombastic showman – as mayor in 2002, it was Rudy Giuliani – and his first instinct would be to turn the thermostat way down on drama. As mayor, he didn’t crave the oxygen of applause and approval nearly to the extent of his predecessor; he took more pleasure from professionalizing the place. His greatest accomplishments – bringing the economy back from the 9/11 catastrophe, reinventing the education system, rebuilding the city’s waterfront, banning smoking in public places – were sold with a minimum of emotion. If you thought Obama was no drama, just wait.

At City Hall, Bloomberg’s team was largely nonideological and unusually accomplished. As president, he would likely set about a housecleaning of the mediocrities who had been installed in every crevice of government over the previous four years. And then he would attack the issues he had fought for relentlessly: climate legislation, gun control, education reform and immigrant rights. Executive orders undermining LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and abortion rights would end up on the scrapheap, next to Trump’s rollback of environmental regulations.

Bloomberg’s efficiency and disdain for theatrics would doubtlessly provide a contrast to his predecessor, but come as a relief to many, as posited by a recent BuzzFeed News headline: “Can Mike Bloomberg Make America Boring Again?” Boring might be an acceptable price to pay for someone with the expertise to lead us away from environmental disaster, make our kids a little safer, rein in the budget and mend our relationships around the world.

Bringing sanity, honesty and competence to the White House wouldn’t be a bad start toward repairing the unholy damage wrought upon this country. A Bloomberg presidency would probably be less entertaining than the previous one, but it would create the kind of boredom that would allow us to sleep a lot better at night.

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Andrew Kirtzman
is the president of Kirtzman Strategies, a strategic communications firm, and the former host of “Inside City Hall” on NY1 and “Kirtzman and Company” on WCBS-TV.