New York On Election Day, voters said something that might have moved a less sensible billionaire to succumb to the siren song of those urging him to spend, say, $500 million of his money on an independent presidential candidacy. But over lunch three days later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who does not do coyness, dismissed the idea as a "pipe dream." Sometimes nothing so validates a politician's wisdom as his ability to circumscribe, or to recognize that circumstances circumscribe, his ambitions.
Bloomberg has demonstrated, in both the public and private sectors, what the electorate cried out for on Election Day: "Competence, please." His business acumen has given him a net worth of $5.3 billion, making him No. 44 on Forbes magazine's list of richest Americans.
After five years as mayor - which began after eight years of dramatic improvement of the city under Rudy Giuliani - Bloomberg's successes include the unemployment rate (4.1 percent), which is the lowest on record, and the city's credit rating, which is at the highest level ever. With crime down 20 percent since Bloomberg took office - after a 57 percent reduction during the Giuliani years - the FBI rates this as the nation's safest large city, which is one reason for the sharp increase in applications to Columbia University and New York University. Welfare caseloads, which numbered 1.1 million a decade ago, are fewer than 400,000. In 2005, the percentage of high school students graduating on time was the highest since the city began keeping that statistic in 1986. Bloomberg credits his crusade against smoking with the decline in heart attacks that has helped make the life expectancy of city residents higher than that of the rest of the nation.
He talks about public policy with an agreeable lack of interest in being agreeable. About schools' accountability under the No Child Left Behind law: "It's pass-fail and they dumb down the standards." About there being no correlation in schools between financial inputs and cognitive outputs: "It's worse than that" - unlike in business, government increases investments in failures, so there is no incentive to do well. About Republicans' recent misadventures: "The country is not as stupid as they think," with their grandstandings about flag burnings and Terri Schiavo. About crime: "Eighty-five percent of all murder victims have criminal records." Exaggerating, slightly, he adds: "If you're not a drug dealer, you won't get murdered." About illegal immigration: Citizens should have Social Security cards with their fingerprints; when employers are afraid to hire illegal immigrants, the problem will abate. Finally: "I am a supporter of the U.N. - and of John Bolton."
Bloomberg was sufficiently serious about a presidential run to ask his lawyers about the states' ballot access laws. But he has decided not to run. He probably knows that third-party candidates who win electoral votes usually have three attributes: a burning issue, a vivid personality and a regional base. Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968 had all three and won 39 and 46 electoral votes, respectively.
In 1992, Ross Perot had a vivid (to put it politely) personality, and the budget deficit was a burning issue because it incorporated all discontents with Washington. He lacked, however, a regional base, so his 18.9 percent of the popular votes earned him no electoral votes.
Bloomberg would have had no regional base, unless a New York state of mind counts as a region. This city's intelligentsia, one of America's most parochial cohorts, is despondent about the city's, the state's and its own diminished political weight. Time was, the state was an incubator of presidents: In 1868, New York had a higher percentage of the nation's electoral votes than California has today, and in the 80-year span of 1868-1948, New Yorkers appeared on more than half of the two major parties' presidential tickets, and five times served as president.
But in 2010, Florida may supplant New York as the nation's third most populous state. Furthermore, it has been 46 years since the nation elected a Northeastern president, John Kennedy. Before John Kerry, the last Northeasterner nominated for president was Michael Dukakis in 1988, which was not fun. Still, three New Yorkers - Giuliani, Hillary Clinton and Gov. George Pataki - today have presidential yearnings of widely different degrees of plausibility. Bloomberg, who made his billions in data systems, might share with those three this datum: None of the last three national tickets that included New Yorkers - vice presidential candidates William Miller (1964), Geraldine Ferraro (1984) and Jack Kemp (1996) - carried the state.