Friday, August 27, 2010

Bloomberg for President?

When very smart people make very dumb mistakes you tend to think that there is method in the madness. At least, I do.

That is why I, among others, have been puzzled by Michael Bloomberg's full-throated defense of the Ground Zero mosque.

Bloomberg has not aimed at subtlety. He has not tried to conciliate the conflict, as Gov. Paterson has done. He has not put himself on the sidelines, ready to come in to calm everyone's jangled nerves.

Quite the contrary. Bloomberg has come down hard on the side of those who want to build the mosque, and has denounced the majority of Americans and New Yorkers who oppose it.

He even refuses to support an investigation of the imam and his financial backers. And, in his next breath he says that anyone who takes the other side of the question should be ashamed of himself.

Arguing that he is simply defending the constitution, Bloomberg has succeeded in placing himself at the center of the national debate about the mosque.

As I have said, the exercises smacks of hubris. It feels like we are watching someone who is so wealthy and so powerful that he is convinced that his instincts are leading him in the right direction even when he is headed off a cliff.

What could he have been thinking?

I was puzzled by this until I read a comment by David Rosenberg. As chief economist and market strategist at the Canadian firm, Gluskin Sheff, Rosenberg sends out a daily e-letter offering his analysis of the economy and the markets.

An influential perma-bear, Rosenberg has been attracting considerable media attention of late. He counts among the most prominent figures declaring that we are in a depression, not a recession.

Yesterday, Rosenberg made the following remark: "When I'm asked what would get me excited about the political landscape, to the point of turning me bullish, it would be something like Mayor Michael Bloomberg announcing his candidacy.... Now that would get me psyched and when I mention that to others as dinner parties and cocktail receptions you should see their eyes light up. I have no inside information on this and have never met Mr. Bloomberg personally, but I heard him speak at a Toronto event a decade ago and that sermon about the financial and economic outlook at that time was a revelation of sorts."

If the possibility of a Bloomberg candidacy is circulating in the corridors of financial power, you can be sure that it has made its way to the mind of Michael Bloomberg.

So, let's indulge a little speculation. What if Bloomberg is using the mosque controversy to raise his public profile, to fill something of a summer news vacuum, to make himself a more national figure.

Maybe he is trying to show that he can provide leadership on a topic of great national importance. Maybe he wants you to be thinking that if he were in charge he would do better than the hapless current occupant of the White House.

Here's another speculation. What if Pres. Obama understood that Bloomberg was preparing the terrain for a 2012 challenge. Perhaps he felt that Bloomberg was hogging too much air time, to say nothing of occupying the moral high ground and peeling off one of his constituencies.

Was this the reason Obama decided to weigh in on the controversy,  to let some of the air out of Bloomberg's trial balloon?

As I was thinking about these matters, I came across a story about Bloomberg's taping of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Here is what Bloomberg said about the controversy: "This is plain and simple people trying to stir things up to get publicity and trying to polarize people so they can get some votes. And I don't think most of those people who are yelling and screaming care one way or the other." Link here.

Of course, Bloomberg conceded that the 9/11 families should not be counted among those who are yelling and screaming.

Now, ask yourself this: who's getting the most publicity out of the controversy? Who has adopted the most shrill and divisive tone in the debate? That would have to be Michael Bloomberg. Could it be that he is trolling for votes for a future candidacy?

In Bloomberg's eyes, politicians are opportunistic. He adds: "This whole issue, I think, will go away right after the next election."

Surely, that would be convenient for Michael Bloomberg. If the issue has been resolved, and Bloomberg's profile enlarged, that would leave him at the ready to start offering an economic platform to rescue the nation from its depression.

He would have gained the support of the more radical leftists for supporting the mosque. He could present himself as an intrepid defender of the constitution. Then he would offer an economic plan that would establish him as an economic centrist.

Of course, if construction workers refuse to build the mosque, or if it continues to be a contentious and divisive issue, something like a festering wound in lower Manhattan, Bloomberg's presidential prospects will become dimmer.

If people are tired of partisanship and are looking for a president who has executive and managerial experience, and who knows his way around the economy, then perhaps there will be a ground swell for Bloomberg.

I had been thinking that Bloomberg's career was about to go down with the mosque. But, maybe there is method in his madness. Maybe most public exposure, like most publicity, is good. Time will tell.

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