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Mike Bloomberg’s Genius Idea

If you are an underpaid writer or artist or social worker or stringed-instrument bow-maker, there is a thought to keep in the back of your mind as you slave away in your garrett: someday, maybe, maybe, the phone will ring and you will be informed that you are the recipient of a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, money you are free to use any damn which way you please. The odds are not great, obviously, but who’s to say, right? After all, there are surely only so many people out there who are sorta-kinda-on-a-good-day-geniusy. Not to mention, have you seen some of the past winners? I mean, come on. We’re not talking 100 percent Einstein here.

This famine-or-feast mindset is now going to infiltrate the country’s political class, thanks to Mike Bloomberg. The New York mayor and uber-philanthropist announced this week that he is starting a SuperPAC that will spend heavily on behalf of candidates around the country that are carrying on the good fight—the good fight, being, well, sticking up for the issues Mayor Mike cares about. As the New York Times reports:

Mr. Bloomberg, a billionaire and a registered independent, expects to spend from $10 million to $15 million of his money in highly competitive state, local and Congressional races. The money would be used to pay for a flurry of advertising on behalf of Republican, Democratic and independent candidates who support three of his biggest policy initiatives: legalizing same-sex marriage, enacting tougher gun laws and overhauling schools.
Among those whom Mr. Bloomberg will support are former Gov. Angus King, an independent running for the United States Senate in Maine; State Senator Gloria Negrete McLeod, who is challenging a fellow Democrat, Representative Joe Baca of California, who the mayor believes has been weak on gun-control; and Representative Bob Dold, a Republican from Illinois who has backed gun-control measures.
The move reflects an eagerness from Mr. Bloomberg, who is entering the twilight of his tenure as mayor, to help elect candidates he regards as centrist and who are willing to compromise, and grapple with what he sees as grave problems confronting the country.

Seen one way, this is simply the latest turn of the Citizens United screw. A slew of other SuperPACs are already out there spending heavily for and against certain candidates—Angus King, for instance, is now coming under a barrage from the Crossroads group co-founded by Karl Rove, so Bloomberg’s money will simply help even the playing field in Maine. 

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However, there’s something about having a SuperPAC formed entirely in the image of a single man that crystallizes what things have come to in our new plutocratic moment. Even if one agrees with every single one of Bloomberg’s above-mentioned issues, it has to give one pause that the whims of a single person could matter so much in races all across the country. That Bloomberg’s money will be directed mostly down-ballot also heightens one’s discomfort—lamentable as it is for Sheldon Adelson or Bob Perry to shovel millions into the presidential race, one knows that the other side will have a critical mass of resources to keep the race relatively competitive. Whereas the sudden arrival of a massive Bloomberg SuperPAC ad buy in a House race in Colorado or California could well be decisive. Yes, there are other groups out there that already have this sort of outsized impact down ballot, with decidedly less progressive goals in mind—the Club for Growth, the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and so on. But progressives ought not assume that the Bloomberg PAC (BloomPAC? SuperBloom?) will always come in on the side they want; Bloomberg’s valorization of centrism often puts him on the side of moderate Republicans willing to stick up for one or two of his pet issues, even if their Democratic opponents align more closely with him overall. He has, for instance, been raising lots of money for Scott Brown in his stand against Elizabeth Warren.

One could argue that Bloomberg’s approach will serve as a needed incentive in a political marketplace now skewed in the wrong direction on many issues—that elected officials will be more likely to vote for gun control, say, if they know that the inevitable assault from the NRA might, might be countered by big bucks from Bloomberg. But is this really what we want to settle for—legislators around the country, at all levels, casting votes in the hope that, off in New York, a multi-multi-billionaire will take notice and pick up the phone? If that’s what it’s going to take to motivate our politicians in the right direction, maybe they should try another line of work instead. Like stringed-instrument bow-making.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis