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Why Wouldn’t Michael Bloomberg Run for President?

Political pundits misunderstand what motivates the former New York mayor.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Since it was reported last week that he would file paperwork to possibly run for president, Michael Bloomberg has been the most feverishly discussed candidate in the Democratic primary, as he likely intended. But much of that discussion has been negative. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart argued that Bloomberg had been “seduced by his past political success” into making a run that, by encroaching “onto Buttigieg’s moderate turf,” would be counterproductive for his policy goals. FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich noted Bloomberg’s inauspicious early numbers in primary polls—his support among Democrats ranges from 4 to 6 percent—writing that “there’s a long way to go before Bloomberg is a factor in this race.” The headline of a CNN piece by Cristina Alesci and Harry Enten captured the consensus: “Michael Bloomberg, the ultimate data guy, is ignoring the data.”

In their bafflement, these analysts have settled on a set of reasonable questions. Why would Bloomberg mount a doomed run that might damage his reputation, instead of supporting Buttigieg or Joe Biden? Wouldn’t moderates be better off if Bloomberg donated to those candidates or put his money behind voter registration and mobilization efforts? What, exactly does he hope to accomplish? There’s a single answer to all of these queries, and it’s a simple one: Michael Bloomberg is exploring a run for the presidency because Michael Bloomberg would like to be president.

This has been clear for nearly 20 years. Bloomberg’s interest in a presidential bid has been a constant through our increasingly tumultuous times. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about his jumping into the race with long odds. Most people who mount political campaigns are likely to lose, and the fact that this is especially true of campaigns for president fails to deter all kinds of also-rans. We’ve come to expect a John Hickenlooper or a Jim Gilmore each campaign season—or, in this season’s case, more than a few of them.

The assumption evidently being made across the press is that Bloomberg ought to be less deluded or less hungry for attention than any other marginal candidate. A quixotic run makes sense for Marianne Williamson, but Bloomberg, it is supposed, is too smart, too much of a “data guy” to do something quite this dumb. But this view both flatters his intelligence and underestimates the size of his ego.

In 2001, The Daily Telegraph ran a profile of Bloomberg, then running for New York mayor, that could very easily have been about a certain other New York City billionaire.

He is worth nearly $8 billion. He owns luxury houses, a private plane and a helicopter. Gorgeous women queue to seduce him. His company ticks over a fortune each day without him needing to be there. But Michael Bloomberg is bored witless. What he really wants is to be the Goliath running the so-called capital of the world. He wants it so badly he is prepared to spend at least $19 million telling everyone how great he is. Then, if elected, he’ll do the job for $2 a year. Naturally ego has nothing to do with it. “Would you rather elect a poor person who didn’t succeed?” Bloomberg asks. “Look, I’m a great American dream.”

Beach went on to write that Bloomberg considered being mayor of New York “one of the four best jobs in the world” alongside being chief of the World Bank, being the secretary-general of the United Nations, and being the president of the United States. His mayorship was successful enough by the standards of the centrist establishment that his public image has transcended the kind of crass ambition he displayed before he ran. Michael Bloomberg is now not only an esteemed thought-leader, but a kind of messianic figure regularly pitched by a determined cadre of centrists as a figure uniquely capable of addressing rising polarization and partisanship on the American political scene. Every election season for the past decade—no matter the political moment, no matter what issues and figures defined any given campaign—the solution to all that ails the country has always been Michael Bloomberg.

One of the early pieces pushing a Bloomberg presidential run ran in New York magazine in 2006. “Bloomberg should really run—fanfare, please—for the good of the country,” Chris Smith wrote. “Elsewhere in this issue you’ll find smart discussions of how American politics could use a competitive jolt from a centrist third party. Those stories do a terrific job of describing how we got into this mess and the mechanism for creating a cure. The specific candidate who best fits the description, and who is best equipped for a 2008 third-party presidential run, is Mike Bloomberg.” Bloomberg addressed the chatter over his political future that summer with jokes and denials while boosters and advisers like Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey kept the door to a run open just wide enough that Bloomberg was a favorite potential candidate of those behind the bipartisan Unity08 campaign in 2007—so much so that two of that group’s founders left to start a Draft Bloomberg campaign. In February 2008, Bloomberg quashed the speculation with an announcement that he wouldn’t run that nonetheless sounded like a campaign launch. “More of the same won’t do, on the economy or any other issue,” he wrote in The New York Times. “We need innovative ideas, bold action and courageous leadership. That’s not just empty rhetoric, and the idea that we have the ability to solve our toughest problems isn’t some pie-in-the-sky dream.”

In 2010, speculative polling gauged support for a potential Bloomberg run in 2012. Only 26 percent of New Yorkers were supportive of the idea. Still, New York was intrigued enough by the possibility that they ran a piece of pure fan fiction by John Heilemann speculating that a Bloomberg run could lead to Electoral College deadlock that would allow House Republicans to install Sarah Palin as president. Bloomberg aide Howard Wolfson assured Heilemann that a recent flurry of political activity had been aimed solely at blunting “the purity-crazed polarization” Bloomberg saw as a “national curse.” Heilemann opined anyway that 2012 would likely be Bloomberg’s “last shot” at the presidency, given his age, and referenced political strategists like Mark Penn who argued that Bloomberg could see an opportunity in the Republican Party’s enthusiasm for Palin and Obama’s liberalism:

One part of Penn’s analysis is shared by strategists in both parties: that a Palin nomination plus a further slide by Obama would tempt at least one independent or third-party challenger to step into the ring. But among the names occasionally mooted—Donald Trump? Really?—Bloomberg’s would be the most viable. His economic competence and financial acumen would appeal to moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats, and his liberal stances on the Park51 mosque, gay marriage, and other social issues might make him appealing to some progressives disappointed in Obama.

Bloomberg, of course, didn’t end up running that year either. Inevitably, 2016 produced yet another round of will-he-or-won’t-he speculation and another column from Bloomberg both denying a potential run and framing his brand of politics as the only solution for America’s woes. But the Times reported this time around that Bloomberg’s aides had been planning for a campaign quite seriously, having produced at least one television ad and contracted with consultants who argued, in maps that subsequently went viral, that Bloomberg could win states like Ohio and Michigan in an independent run against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and even tie Trump in Texas in a race against Bernie Sanders. The next month, former Politico CEO Jim VandeHei floated Bloomberg as a potential backer of a new “Innovation Party” that could “disrupt” the American political establishment with a kind of Silicon Valley populism.

Seven years after Bloomberg’s “last shot,” he’s a potential contender once again, albeit an evidently more serious one than before. It would be easy to chalk up his interest this time to encouragement from the press. But Bloomberg, one of the ten wealthiest people in America, probably never really needed a confidence boost. If billionaires like Bloomberg aren’t masters of the universe, they are at least used to shaping or running their particular corners of the world—companies, whole industries, entire cities. It’s evidently not too much of a stretch to imagine their running the rest of it. Belief in the omnipotence of the wealthy—the notion that acquiring vast amounts of wealth requires an intelligence roughly as vast—runs deep. Last week’s back and forth between Bill Gates and Elizabeth Warren over Warren’s proposed wealth tax brought a chorus of voices online to Gates’s defense, arguing that wealthy philanthropists like Gates spend their money as rationally as anyone possibly could—never mind the fact that some of that money, in Gates’s case, was donated at the recommendation of Jeffery Epstein, a convicted sex offender with no scientific credentials.

This is the kind of thinking that allows people to presuppose that a man like Bloomberg should be able to see, in polls and reporting, what political obsessives see. But those obsessives can’t see what Bloomberg sees: a political world that seems to revolve around him as clearly as it seemed to mankind for ages that the Earth was the center of the universe. The politicians come to people like him for money and advice, while ordinary folk have to resign themselves to phone calls and protests. He owes the very fact that he’s being discussed as a candidate at all to wealth—the very same thing that sent the current occupant of the White House on his way to the presidency. It makes all the sense in the world that Bloomberg might take a look at the election this time around—at a worse, less wealthy businessman running for a second term—and think to himself, “Why wasn’t that me?” He is no better or smarter for being a billionaire than all the other misguided and ambitious people who jump into presidential politics, and if by some miracle he is elected, he will be subject to the same kinds of ordinary misjudgments that often afflict ordinary people.

Bloomberg will retain cheerleaders in the press anyway, although there will be fewer of them moving forward than he’s been used to. Strange things are happening in the mainstream media. After NBC’s Chuck Todd argued on air last week that Bloomberg could win the primary and general election, and might be the most left-wing candidate in the field on guns and climate policy besides, he was shut down by his incredulous panel of guests. The episode was a decent footnote to a piece Politico founding editor John Harris wrote recently arguing that mainstream pundits like himself, had been blinkered for years by “centrist bias,” putting them out of touch with the country’s changing ideological currents. It was a remarkable column in a growing canon of pieces from political journalists troubled by the habits and assumptions that could have had a hand in bringing Trump about. The ground under Bloomberg, in other words, is shifting considerably. We’ll find out soon enough whether he notices.