Michael Bloomberg’s campaign for president is unprecedented in American political life. The sheer size and scope of Bloomberg’s campaign spending has vaulted a candidate who is out of step with the Democratic Party primary electorate on many important issues into the top tier of candidates. While the money is important, Bloomberg’s campaign has also been well run, on message and politically astute. Bloomberg, in contrast to the man he is trying to unseat, is not just some rich guy who has surrounded himself with grifters and hangers on. Rather, the three term New York City mayor has hired some of the best and smartest political professionals around.
Nonetheless, the big story of the Bloomberg campaign is that he has thus far outspent all of the other Democrats combined by a factor of probably around three to one. One of the most valuable fruits of his spending spree has been that it has contributed to a growing perception that Bloomberg, despite never having been tested in a campaign against somebody who can spend enough money to compete with him, is uniquely electable. Importantly, if Bloomberg wins the nomination, that notion will be tested in the fall because Trump will have enough money to campaign aggressively against Bloomberg.
The magnitude of Bloomberg’s wealth is not easy to comprehend. Unlike Donald Trump, who is a low rent caricature of a billionaire, Bloomberg, who outspent his Democrats by a margin of about 10-1 in each of his three campaigns for mayor, is the real deal. In other words, Bloomberg is a real oligarch, Trump just plays one on television. Much of the attention around how Bloomberg has used his money thus far focuses, rightly, on his television and social media ads which are very good, hard-hitting and pretty much everywhere. Additionally, Bloomberg has not only been able to hire top political talent, but has been able to staff operations all over the country including in important states like Florida, while his opponents do not have the money to create similar operations.
Bloomberg has not only been able to hire top political talent, but has been able to staff operations all over the country including in important states like Florida, while his opponents do not have the money to create similar operations
A lesser emphasis has been on the tertiary effects of Bloomberg’s philanthropical efforts. Bloomberg has been an influential and generous philanthropist for decades and has contributed billions to causes ranging from medical research to reforming gun laws to combating climate change. Much of this work has been very admirable. Unlike the grifter in the White House, Bloomberg is a rich man who has used some of his almost unfathomable wealth to make real and positive change.
The problem this raises for democracy is that because Bloomberg has spent, and continues to spend, so much money, and because it is clear now that, at least to an extent, the line between his philanthropic work and his political ambitions is blurred, every statement of support for him raises questions about a money trail. Thus, while politics has long been transactional, an oligarch like Bloomberg takes that to a different level. The word oligarch has negative connotations, but in a value neutral descriptive sense that is what Bloomberg is. He is a man of extraordinary wealth who puts his wealth to use to further, and in fact create, his political career and whose wealth is spread across many key sectors of the political landscape such as campaign funding, philanthropy and media.
The problem for democracy is that because we know that Bloomberg runs a media empire and has brought numerous social media influencers into his campaign, we now wonder whether every pro-Bloomberg Tweet or Instagram post comes from somebody who is on the payroll. Similarly, when a newspaper columnist writes a pro-Bloomberg piece, we begin to wonder about whether or not there is a money trail there. For example, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote a relatively standard fare pro-Bloomberg column last week that included these italicized words in parentheses at the end of the article (Disclosure: Bloomberg Philanthropies has donated to Planet Word, the museum my wife is building in Washington, to promote reading and literacy.) Friedman, and the Times, should get credit for being transparent, but the article leaves unanswered the question of how much money Bloomberg donated and how much influence that money has secured. Moreover, the reader begins to wonder whether every pro-Bloomberg piece, is written because the author is benefiting financially. Correspondingly, every time an anti-Bloomberg piece we can wonder whether the author is bitter because he is not getting money from Bloomberg. (Full disclosure-Neither my wife, my children or I am getting any money from Bloomberg, but I have friends in most of the Democratic campaigns including Bloomberg’s. I am undecided in the primary, but will support whoever is nominated against Trump.)
The overall effect of this is to increase distrust in politics, politicians and government as voters come to believe that everything is simply about the money
These concerns go beyond media figures and pundits and extends to Bloomberg’s impressive list of endorsements. It is certainly possible that these people including mayors like Michael Tubbs of Stockton and London Breed of San Francisco, members of congress like Ted Deutch of Florida or Haley Stevens from Michigan support Bloomberg because they like his brand of centrism and think he can win. It is also possible that he contributed to their campaigns and they are repaying the favor or that they benefited from one of his philanthropic efforts. This is more or less normal politics, but the problem of oligarchy is that because Bloomberg has so much money, the suspicions that the financial tie was bigger than that, perhaps in the form of a promised major contribution to a favorite charity or something of that nature, always linger. This is a problem of oligarchy, not of Bloomberg himself, because even if he never gave another penny to causes supported by these politicians, the suspicion would still be there. The overall effect of this is to increase distrust in politics, politicians and government as voters come to believe that everything is simply about the money.
Bloomberg is doing nothing illegal and, like every Democrat still meaningfully in the race, would be an infinitely better President than Donald Trump. The former New York City Mayor is also running a smart campaign and using whatever resources he can. In the context of American political competition, this is smart and rational behavior. Nonetheless, it is also sets a potentially very dangerous precedent that could lead to new challenges to American democracy at a time when the crisis is already profound.
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