Commentary Magazine


Bloomberg’s Balancing Act

Yesterday, Jonathan mentioned the money-in-politics hypocrisy of President Obama and his supporters on the left, as the president announced ramped-up efforts to sell access to the White House. The other side of the left’s hypocrisy on the evils of buying political influence concerns the spending of “outside money” on congressional and gubernatorial elections. Yet while the Koch brothers are subjected to all manner of threats and verbal abuse for taking part in the political process, the same cannot be said of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to spend millions on individual races to support anti-gun rights politicians, such as in the Democratic primary being held today to replace Jesse Jackson Jr.

As expected, Bloomberg’s target, Debbie Halvorson, isn’t happy about the mayor’s money tour and Bloomberg’s attempts to make an example of her today. After Bloomberg’s check-signing spree occasioned some changes in the composition of the race, Halvorson accused Bloomberg of trying to buy the election. Perish the thought, responded Bloomberg: “I’m part of the public. I happen to have some money, and that’s what I’m going to do with my money — try to get us some sensible gun laws.” Bloomberg is, of course, absolutely right that he’s doing nothing wrong by involving himself in the political process on behalf of candidates and causes he supports. But the most interesting aspect of this story may be that Bloomberg is less dedicated to being a single-issue one-man super-PAC than he seems at first blush.

In a perceptive and fascinating piece in Capital New York, Reid Pillifant tells the story of Rep. Elizabeth Esty, “a pro-gun control Democrat who represents Newtown, Conn. She’s a member of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, and a proud advocate for tougher gun control laws, including a robust new version of the federal assault weapons ban.” Despite all that, Bloomberg spent more than $1 million to help defeat her.

That’s because, as Pillifant shows, Bloomberg is caught between his sense of mission on two causes that often conflict: his “no labels” self-styled centrism and his anti-gun agenda. Though Bloomberg’s strategy is still in its early stages, he appears to favor his Save the Moderates campaign if and when he is forced to choose:

Case in point, in a district that was to take on enormous symbolic importance on the gun issue because of Sandy Hook: Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC spent $1.1 million to back Republican Andrew Roraback against Esty, with television ads touting Roraback as a “rare moderate” based on non-gun issues including abortion rights, campaign finance reform, and environmental protections.

The ad’s only mention of guns was a quote from newspaper story saying Roraback supports “better enforcement of existing gun laws,” but the narrator skipped over the word “existing.” And the ad didn’t cite the next line from the same story, when Roraback told the Record-Journal, shortly after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado: “I don’t think that more gun control is the answer.”

Around the same time, the mayor hosted a fund-raiser for Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, even though Brown was the more gun-friendly candidate in his race against Elizabeth Warren.

And, in Illinois, Bloomberg backed Robert Dold, a moderate Republican who touted his work with Bloomberg to close the gun-show loophole, against a Democratic opponent who was more comprehensively for gun control.

This will be interesting to watch because it’s a tacit admission that Bloomberg’s political passions aren’t really all that moderate. Whether it’s gun control, global warming, comically obsessive regulation or nanny-state, paternalistic experiments in social engineering, Bloomberg gets quite animated over causes that don’t quite win over the center–and often force him to either abandon those causes or run against the centrist candidates. (Just how animated does Bloomberg get over these issues? Last year, he suggested that the NYPD should perhaps go on strike and give the city a taste of punitive anarchism until politicians elsewhere pass gun control legislation to the mayor’s liking.)

As Politico reported in January, the perceived centrism is actually very important to the massive lobbying campaign he has begun. He explained to Politico that he uses his perch as mayor of New York to do the things that really interest him, and his willingness to back politicians of both parties gives him credibility with a wide swathe of the American body politic:

“The mayor of the city of New York gets great visibility,” Bloomberg said. “Being sort of nonpartisan gives you an access to both sides. Being willing to do fundraisers and give money is not without its benefits. I can’t tell you that they all jump when I call, but they do take the call. And you can go and give them a presentation and make your case. And then some I support because I respect them as human beings even though I don’t agree with them at all.”

That “sort of” modifying his description of himself as “nonpartisan” is crucial to understanding the dynamic at play in the Illinois race today, and hints at the challenges Bloomberg will face in supporting moderate politicians but not moderate policies.

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