New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spent the first half of this year deciding whether or not to run for president as an independent. On February 28th, he announced that he would not be a candidate. My guess is he wakes up every morning regretting his decision.
At the time, the choice seemed obvious. Bloomberg is an independent (though formerly a Democrat and a Republican) politician focused on achieving common sense solutions by working with both parties. He is open to the best ideas, regardless of where they come from. And he appeals primarily to independents and moderates in both parties.
At the end of February, it was clear that John McCain would be the Republican nominee and an Obama victory seemed imminent. Both candidates were seen as the more moderate, post-partisan choices in each of their fields. Both were willing to break with their party, McCain by opposing a Republican president on a number of issues and exposing corruption in his party, Obama by shocking Democrats with kind words about President Reagan and acknowledging that we should be open to good ideas from Republicans (and that "good ideas from Republicans" isn't an oxymoron). Both candidates relied on crossover and independent voters in some races and regularly reached out to them in their stump speeches.
Lastly, a large focus of the campaign up to that point was foreign policy and the war in Iraq, with McCain winning his race by emphasizing his credentials and support for the surge and Obama focusing on his judgment in opposing the war from the beginning. Though health care and the economy were growing as issues, it was still thought that a city mayor would be at a significant disadvantage in an election dominated by national security.
Bloomberg was going to run only if he was convinced he could win. The possibility of a third party candidate winning the presidency is remote to say the least, especially a short, unmarried, Jewish mayor, as Bloomberg himself often pointed out. But this election seemed stacked against him. Both parties were set to nominate candidates he had spoken highly of in the past and who occupied much of the same ground as himself. Whereas a Hillary Clinton vs. Rudy Giuliani race (yes, once considered a possibility) would be negative and polarizing (with the added benefit of featuring two candidates he doesn't much care for), Obama and McCain had wide appeal across party lines and were the ones most likely to run respectful campaigns.
Bloomberg made three mistakes: he assumed the race was over, he assumed the core issues of the election were set, and he assumed that the candidates were more important than their parties.
The Republican race was considered over at the end of February, and the Democratic campaign nearly so. However, on March 4th, Hillary Clinton won Texas and Ohio and made it clear that she intended to compete until the end of the primaries. Later in March, Obama was hit by the Rev. Wright controversy. Soon, the debates and campaign commercials turned much more aggressive and the race increasingly divisive. The race did not end until June 3rd.
No one foresaw in February where we are in September. The surge has been so successful that the war in Iraq has largely receded as an issue and it's increasingly likely that the majority of troops will be withdrawn over the next two years regardless of who is elected.
More importantly, the crisis in the mortgage industry and financial markets has now grown into the dominant issue in the campaign. As he showed on Meet the Press this morning, Mayor Bloomberg is uniquely qualified to speak to this problem and would be dominating the debate if he were currently a candidate.
Before the Iowa Caucuses, I endorsed John McCain and Barack Obama for president. Believing neither was likely to win, I wrote: "That would truly be a once-in-a-lifetime election as both men believe in appealing to the best in each of us."
The great disappointment over the past four months has been the realization that even the best candidates cannot overcome the parties, the consultants, and the media environment that give us the exact same campaign every four years. If there was one year when things would be different, I honestly thought it would be this one. I was completely wrong.
Soon after Obama won the nomination, he changed his mind on accepting public financing and participating in a series of town hall debates with McCain. After promising a positive campaign that fully respects his opponent, McCain has launched attack after attack, each more cutting and dismissive than the last. Both campaigns regularly twist words, grab a few sentences out of context, reduce votes on complex bills to footnote-based outrage, and generally behave emotional, high-strung teenagers who perceive a slight in everything.
Each party and most of each candidate's supporters believe that they have no choice. You have to hit back harder and faster than your opponent if you want to win. And no matter what your high aspirations are for January, they're irrelevant unless you are victorious in November.
Bloomberg was convinced that these two candidates left no room for an independent, solutions-driven candidate who appealed to moderates and people who believe more in solving problems than assigning blame and taking credit. Who needs an immensely successful businessman, 2-term mayor of the largest city in America, with expertise in domestic and economic issues during a time of war?
Mayor Bloomberg, like all politicians, is a flawed man with many positions that I do not support. But he had the chance to be the first legitimate third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt. His wealth, success, focus on results, and appeal across party lines would have given him a platform to reveal the flaws, corruption, and true silliness of our existing parties and election process. It is nearly impossible for an independent to win the presidency, but I'm convinced that if he had run, and the last few months had played out in an identical fashion, that the polls would show a three-way tie right now.
And our country would be better for it.