Amid the possibility that Democrats will nominate a New England socialist while Republicans are in thrall to Donald Trump's theatrically fascist campaign, Michael Bloomberg believes he may be poised to claim some mythical middle ground with a history-making independent bid for the White House.
The former New York City mayor is both media mogul and media darling. As a self-made billionaire with deep connections to both Wall Street and New York media, he is persistently portrayed as a public intellectual. As an equal-opportunity offender of Republicans and Democrats alike, he can lay claim to the "moderate" label that seems so appealing in these extreme political times.
Many of us like to think of ourselves as moderate, in opposition to the extremists on the other side of the debate. But somehow, despite a glut of moderation and bipartisan sentiment, people on the left and the right keep getting elected to national office, while those like Bloomberg are left sniping from the chairs of weekend chat shows.
There's a reason for this: Bloomberg's brand of moderation is not popular. His economic platform, as he described it repeatedly between 2011 and 2013, is full of ideas that voters simply do not want. For example, he has proposed to balance the federal budget by 2025 by raising taxes across the board (including for middle-class workers) while cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
If this sounds familiar to you, it's because Bloomberg's ideas are based on the recommendations of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a bipartisan committee put together by President Obama in 2010 with the mission of breaking Washington gridlock and balancing the federal budget. It became known as the Simpson/Bowles Committee, and it failed because setting up a blue-ribbon panel to accomplish something voters don't want cannot work in a democracy. Simpson/Bowles polled quite poorly among voters, and the ideas flopped in Congress.
Bloomberg endorses all of the recommendations of Simpson/Bowles and has spent considerable time and money lobbying Congress to adopt such remedies since early 2011. The promise of the moderate is that they can deliver on some unspoken public will but this promise is fantasy. There simply is no groundswell of support for the economic ideas behind a Bloomberg candidacy.
Let's start with Social Security. According to a Pew Research survey from August, almost nobody believes Social Security benefits should be cut; the older people get, the less they like the idea. Bloomberg wants to push up the retirement age to 69 while cutting annual cost-of-living increases. This is all fine if you're a mayor or media mogul, but might not be so great if you're a construction worker building casinos for Trump.
Bloomberg also wants to increase Medicare premiums, raising co-pays in an attempt to dissuade retirees from using too many medical services. Like the Social Security cuts, this is part of what the country, in a rare moment of true bipartisanship, rejected along with the whole Simpson/Bowles plan.
As he cuts the services that ordinary people will rely on in retirement, Bloomberg also wants to raise taxes on middle-class workers. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders (nor Barack Obama, for that matter) has ever proposed raising taxes on the first $250,000 of anybody's income. Bloomberg, in a 2012 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal called for raising taxes on everybody's income. Democrats, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sanders have declared off-limits the idea of raising taxes on the first $250,000 of income, and this seems in-step with public opinion on the matter. Bloomberg argues that you can't raise taxes on the rich high enough to dent the budget deficit, but the deficit is not actually a priority for voters from either party.
"We are all in this together," wrote Bloomberg. "Pitting one group against another not only divides us in counterproductive ways but offers one group the false promise of something for nothing." That is not, by any means, a moderate or middle-of-the-road view of progressive taxation.
Bloomberg's deficit obsession stems from his belief, as he explained in his Journal piece, that "[i]f the federal government passed a real deficit reduction plan, business leaders would respond as they did in the 1990s, when President Clinton and Congress adopted a long-term deficit reduction plan that gave businesses more certainty about the market." Bloomberg has never explained how this magic "certainty" works, though it is Bloombergian to care more about perceived sentiments of "business leaders" than voters who have made their priorities clear.
Bloomberg doesn't have to explore his options. His ideas have already been field-tested and rejected. The former mayor is no moderate, he's just out of touch – and there's no virtue in that.