We've been here before. Back in mid-2007, the political world was swirling with talk of a third-party presidential run by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. And on this week's Meet the Press, the subject came up once again as David Gregory interviewed Mr. Will-He-Or-Won't-He:
MR. GREGORY: You say you don't want to run for president. Yet, based on all my reporting, you're taking a serious look at this, doing some calculations about whether this could be something that you could actually win. Are you saying that you're not even looking at the possibility of running?
MAYOR BLOOMBERG: No, I'm not looking at the possibility of running. I've got a great job, and I'm going to stay with it.
MR. GREGORY: OK. So...
MAYOR BLOOMBERG: I am going to speak out on those things that affect New York City. That's my job. People that say, "Oh, you shouldn't be talking on a national level," well, we crated 55,000 private sector jobs in New York in the last 12 months. That's much greater than the percentage we should create with our population. But we can't do everything without help from the federal government and our state government. And so I'm out there talking about immigration, talking about regulation, talking about the president being out there selling our products, all of these kinds of things, because that'll help us out.
MR. GREGORY: But if, if advisers came to you and said, "You know, Mr. Mayor, we've taken a hard look at this. We think this would not just be a vanity plate, you could actually win this thing," would you change your mind?
MAYOR BLOOMBERG: No.
MR. GREGORY: No way, no how?
MAYOR BLOOMBERG: No way, no how. Because...
MR. GREGORY: So your supporters who, who create all this buzz should cease and desist?
MAYOR BLOOMBERG: They--I don't think most of them do create this buzz. I mean, yes, they should cease and desist, but most of this is just because the press wants to have something to write about. But the bottom line is, I've got a great job, I want to go out being, having a reputation as a very good, maybe the greatest mayor ever. And I'm lucky to have three predecessors, Giuliani and Dinkins and Koch, all of whom have been very helpful in trying to make me a better mayor.
It's a two-hundred-year-old tradition for political anglers to swear that they are not in fact angling for anything, so Bloomberg's denials are not necessarily to be believed.
I remain totally bemused by this talk, as I was back in 2007. There is really no practical way for Michael Bloomberg to become president. Sure, it's possible in the sense that anything is possible. But the Mayor of Gotham really has but an infinitesimal shot.
Bloomberg's immediate problem is the 12th Amendment, which determines what happens when no presidential candidate receives an Electoral College majority. The bottom line is that the race gets thrown into the House of Representatives, which is a totally partisan body. It is hard to believe partisan Democrats or Republicans would actually vote against their own candidate.
Practically speaking, Bloomberg would probably have to receive an Electoral College majority, which is even more difficult to envision. After all, in many states the number of partisans or ideologues on one side or the other make it just too much for a third party candidate to overcome. In California in 2008, for instance, 42% of voters called themselves Democrats. In a three-way race, that would be a huge advantage for Barack Obama. Similarly, 46% of Texas voters called themselves conservative that year, giving the Republican nominee a great advantage. How does Bloomberg win the presidency while losing both California and Texas?
Bloomberg commented to Gregory on Meet the Press that the Founding Fathers "didn't seem to have an interest in party politics." This is partially true. They did not anticipate political parties as we know them today, but they were acutely aware of the potential for the formation of factions. And in fact, the Founding Fathers turned around to become the Founding Partisans! You can go all the way back to 1792 -- the year of George Washington's reelection -- and see the first stirrings of partisan electoral politics, as the vote for Vice-President is split between John Adams and George Clinton. And actually those divisions had their roots in the debate over the Constitution itself, i.e. the Federalists versus the Anti-Federalists.
This speaks to a point made by E.E. Schattschneider some years ago that American democracy as we know it would be unthinkable without the political parties. And we can appreciate, in the case of a potential Bloomberg candidacy, just how thoroughly the parties permeate our system. Bloomberg would not be able to win an Electoral College majority because of partisan loyalties among the mass public, and he would not be able to win in the House of Representatives because of partisan loyalties there. Everywhere you turn in our political system, you will find the political parties. You cannot envision how American government would function without the parties, because they've always been everywhere.
For his part, Bloomberg is a booster of this rather silly No Labels movement, that wants to get beyond the two-party system. While it is nice to talk about toning down the partisan rhetoric, the party labels are without doubt the most useful service the two major parties provide to the American citizenry. The words "Democrat" and "Republican" are jam-packed with information, making it easier for voters to figure out whom to support. To see what a world without party labels is like, one should read V.O. Key's Southern Politics in State and Nation, a fascinating study of politics in the Jim Crow South. It is not a pretty picture. Black voters were systematically disenfranchised, but poor white voters were not very well off either. The absence of a two-party system often meant that there was no meaningful political debate in the region, and voters were frequently unsure which candidate truly represented their interests. They were regularly persuaded to vote for some pseudo-populist who spoke the common language on the stump, but supported the local textile magnate when in office.
This is why I am always suspicious of political actors who actively want to eschew a partisan identity. It leaves me wondering what their political angle is, and I'd note with interest that a lot of the politicians backing this No Labels enterprise tend to come from the "wrong" party for their region, e.g. Mike Bloomberg was formerly a Republican in New York City, Evan Bayh was formerly a Democrat in Indiana, and Charlie Crist became an independent solely for the purpose of becoming a senator. Their personal political fortunes would rise if voters stopped using party labels. That makes me wonder.
Fortunately, all of this talk is tantamount to spitting into the wind. Michael Bloomberg is not going to be president of the United States, and this "No Labels" business will be long forgotten sooner rather than later, all thanks to the political parties. The parties not only control our system of government, they define it. American politics is unthinkable without the Republicans and the Democrats, and there is nothing Mayor Bloomberg can do about it.