Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mike flirts, Hillary dodges

Let’s get real: What are the odds that the voters of America would choose, as their next president, a pint-sized, twice-divorced Jewish billionaire New Yorker who touts gay marriage and gun control, and who not only admits to having smoked weed, but says he liked it?

Paris Hilton would graduate from law school, magna cum laude, before that happens.

Michael Bloomberg, the newly-minted independent mayor of New York, is probably cognizant of these odds; nevertheless, right now, he loses nothing by distancing himself from both parties and leaving all options open. Today, in Manhattan, the ex-Republican and ex-Democrat played peekaboo again; referring to the White House race, he said, "The more people that run for office the better."

This is standard behavior during the season of the big tease.

The big tease is a cyclical thing. A year or two before every recent presidential election, as voters vent their requisite disgust with the partisan bickering of the two major parties, it seems like somebody is always out there flirting with an independent run. The roster of failed flirters includes such names as Bob Kerrey, Bill Bradley, Lowell Weicker, and Colin Powell (the latter said in 1995 that "the time may be at hand for a third major party to emerge from the sensible center of the American political spectrum").

What generally stops them, in the end, is the rational recognition that the financial and ballot obstacles to success are virtually insurmountable, and that Americans – cautious by nature – are ultimately most comfortable with the two established brands. Coke and Pepsi might not be very nutritious, but you know what you’re getting. Nobody really knows what they would be getting if an independent president had to do business with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Hence, Ross Perot spent $65 million during the ’92 campaign (a hefty sum at the time), and finished with zero electoral votes; his image as a borderline loony certainly didn’t help, but I think the branding issue was pivotal.

Theoretically, Bloomberg at least can tout his record as a successful mayor, he can further nurture his image as a sensible centrist (see the Time magazine cover this week), and he is theoretically prepared to dip into his own pocket for loose change – translation: half a billion dollars – and thus bankroll a national campaign. In other words, he would have the money (and the lawyers) to navigate the state ballot obstacles. In fact, he just took care of one potential hurdle, simply by re-registering as an independent; some states frown on independent candidates who are still registered as party members back home.

The beauty of this moment, for Bloomberg, is that he doesn’t have to decide anything. He can simply dip his toe in the water, and ponder at length whether there is a sufficient market niche for his goods. Right now, at least rhetorically, it would appear so. The polls report that most Americans are fed up with both parties – the Democratic Congress, as well as the Bush-burdened Republicans. The stalemate in Washington has yielded no progress on the issues that people care about most, everything from Iraq and health care to energy and immigration.

Hence, Bloomberg’s key remark the other day, while on the stump in California: “We do not have to settle for the same old politics. We do not have to accept the tired debate between the left and right, between Democrats and Republicans, between Congress and the White House.” Hence, his statement yesterday, about the advantages of being an independent: “Any successful elected executive knows that real results are more important than partisan battles, and that good ideas should take precedence over rigid adherence to any particular political ideology.”

He can run those lines for the rest of this year, and it’s a win-win. Potentially, he’ll boost his prospects as a would-be independent candidate; failing that, he’ll look like a national leader – as opposed to merely a lame-duck, term-limited New York mayor. And in the meantime, he’ll get all kinds of free publicity from the punditocracy, which can fill the slow periods with speculation about “who he would hurt, and who he would help” if indeed he took the plunge and made it a three-way race in autumn ’08.

I’m not going to bother; you can find those scenarios elsewhere (here, for example). I suspect that, 15 months from today, none of them will matter.


Did you catch Hillary Clinton’s dodge yesterday, when she refused to say whether she believed it was appropriate to pardon Scooter Libby?

During a labor forum yesterday for Democratic candidates, host Chris Matthews posed the question. She replied: “Oh, I think there would be enough to be said about that without me adding to it.”

Matthews protested (“That is such a political answer!”), but the pro-Hillary audience shouted him down, demanding that he ask “a real question,” and he let it go.

Well, excuse him for asking, but it seems to me that it would valuable to hear Hillary’s thoughts on whether a Bush lieutenant, convicted of lying under oath and obstruction of justice in a national security investigation, should be jailed or not. She’s running for president, and she was asked her thoughts about the rule of law. That sounds like a “real question” to me.

But we know, of course, why Hillary took a powder on that one. If she had declared “Free Scooter,” liberals would have screamed. If she had declared “Jail Scooter,” Hillary-haters would have demanded to know why Scooter shouldn’t get the same deal that Marc Rich received. Rich, as you may remember, is the fugitive financier (58 counts of tax fraud, illegal oil deals with Iran during the hostage crisis) who was pardoned by Bill Clinton in his final hours as president. It was widely suspected at the time (but never proven) that Rich’s socialite ex-wife had greased the pardon by donating $1 million to Democratic causes, $450,000 to the Clinton presidential library fund – and $70,000 to Hillary Clinton's first Senate campaign.

So her “non-answer” about Scooter yesterday, as Matthews correctly called it, is further evidence that the old Clinton baggage will on occasion weigh heavily – forcing her to play the inartful dodger.