Bloomberg: A Liberal in Moderate's Clothing

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has carefully crafted an image as a pragmatic moderate—a non-partisan good governance politician interested only in solving problems. It is this positioning that has led to regular rumors that Bloomberg, as the nation’s pre-eminent elected independent, is considering a run for President, rumors that he has regularly denied. 

The latest of these rumors has Bloomberg landing a spot on a reshuffled economic team in President Obama’s Cabinet, perhaps as Treasury secretary. The New York Daily News threw cold water on those rumors, quoting sources close to the mayor as saying that Bloomberg does not want to play “second fiddle.”

“He hasn’t had a boss since he started his company, he doesn’t want to work for anybody else. Would you want to give up being mayor so you could sit in your office and have Rahm Emanuel’s assistant tell you not to say something?” aides to the mayor said.

Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat until switching his affiliation to Republican for his first mayoral race. In switching again to independent midway through his second term, Bloomberg decried partisanship, which he said was, “paralyzing decision making,” at the federal level. “The big issues of the day are not being addressed, leaving our future in jeopardy,” he said.

Still, Bloomberg has become more active in national politics, endorsing candidates nationwide and taking a leading role in controversial issues, thus fueling speculation that he has aspirations beyond City Hall in the not too distant future. If any indications can be drawn from his recent spate of endorsements, Bloomberg may be returning to his liberal Democrat roots.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of Bloomberg’s endorsements this election cycle shows that of 16 candidates given the mayor’s official seal of approval, 11 are liberal Democrats. Prominent among these are Sen. Michael Bennet (D.-Colo.), Senate candidate Rep. Joe Sestak (D.-Pa.), and troubled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.). The Journal reported that Bloomberg gave $4,800 to Bennet, and traveled to Pennsylvania to appear with Sestak. But the mayor is pulling out all the stops for Reid, agreeing to host a fundraiser for the embattled senator at his personal residence later this year.

In the House, Bloomberg has lent his name to two liberal Democrats: Carolyn McCarthy (N.Y.-4) and Michael McMahon (N.Y.-13). Although he has withheld an explicit public endorsement, the mayor recorded an automated call for Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.-15), calling him, “my go-to guy in Washington.” 

Recently, Bloomberg came out for Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo (D) in the New York governor’s race. Before becoming attorney general, Cuomo ran for governor on the Liberal Party line and served as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Clinton Administration. Critics charge that Cuomo bears some responsibility for the sub-prime lending crisis that nearly shipwrecked the U.S. economy, stemming from his tenure as the nation’s housing chief.

On the Republican side, Bloomberg has endorsed three Republicans running for federal office. Two of these, Senate candidate Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and the recently defeated Senate candidate Mike Castle (Del.), are among the most liberal members of the Republican caucus in the House. 

Bloomberg has also endorsed former Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s independent bid for governor of Rhode Island. Chafee was the Senate’s most liberal Republican before bolting the party after losing his reelection campaign in 2006. While still in the Senate, Chafee famously refused to vote for President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, writing in the name of former president George H.W. Bush instead. Like Bloomberg, Chafee left the Republican Party in 2007, complaining that the party was becoming too conservative.

Bloomberg is a self-described fiscal conservative with liberal social positions. He has raised property taxes and cut spending to balance the city budget, and also proposed property and sales tax reductions in later years. He has also offered large tax breaks to companies such as investment giant Goldman Sachs to help keep jobs from moving out of the city.

But like his endorsements, Bloomberg’s far more well-known positions—and those that he defends most vociferously in public—trend toward the liberal side. He has become a national advocate on public health issues. Under his leadership, the city’s Board of Health worked to pass a law banning smoking in New York City restaurants and bars, required restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus, and banned trans fats in cooking, as a result earning its director, Bloomberg protégé Dr. Thomas Frieden, an appointment as head of the Centers for Disease Control in the Obama Administration. The board’s latest effort is a push to reduce the salt content in U.S. foods by 25%.

Bloomberg is an avowed supporter of abortion, calling it a “fundamental right we can never take for granted.” He has criticized President Bush’s Supreme Court appointments—Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito—for their opposition to Roe v. Wade, saying the justices’ nominations were “a powerful reminder of just how important this fight is.” 

“As long as I am mayor,” Bloomberg has said, “it will be city policy to defend a woman’s right to choose.  It is their right, we will always protect it.”

On other issues, Bloomberg’s liberal proclivities show though as well. He supports embryonic stem cell research, favors of same sex marriage, believes that illegal immigrants should be offered citizenship, is a strong proponent of gun control, and opposes the death penalty. On the environment, Bloomberg is an unapologetic believer in global warming, despite recent scandals involving research that forms the underpinning of the disputed science, and has taken steps to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. His plan to charge commuters extra fees for driving into a “congestion zone” in mid-town Manhattan was rejected by the state legislature in 2008.

More than his endorsements or his policy positions, however, Bloomberg’s national profile has been raised again by his persistent support for the controversial proposal to build an Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. Faced with overwhelming opposition both nationally and among New Yorkers, the mayor couched his arguments in favor of the proposal in terms of religious freedom. In a speech widely praised by liberal commentators, Bloomberg implied that opposition to the mosque was fundamentally un-American.

“This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions or favor one over another. The World Trade Center site will forever hold a special place in our city, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans if we said no to a mosque in lower Manhattan,” Bloomberg said. “We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists, and we should not stand for that.”

New York City Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, the former communications director for Hillary Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential campaign, summed up Bloomberg’s national appeal. “He’s an independent who comes to his positions, not based on an ideology or a party identification,” Wolfson said. “We live in a political moment where people are tired of partisanship, and the mayor is a leading independent in this country. Candidates are very eager to have his endorsements, from both parties.” 

At least this year, however, the candidates Bloomberg has decided to associate himself with are overwhelmingly partisan liberals, “from both parties,” as Mr. Wolfson might say. That seems to track with Bloomberg’s penchant for taking left-leaning policy positions, especially on social issues. Taken together, the two trends indicate that, whatever his future political plans may be and however he may choose to position himself for the public, Bloomberg will almost certainly prove himself to be moderate in name, but on balance a liberal in substance.