The politics of change

Since Iowa, everyone's a change agent, but New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is discussing the need for a new tone in presidential politics. Of course, that's easy for him to say. He's got the money to be taken seriously and the inspiration of Robert Fulghum-style simplicity.
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Since Iowa, everyone's a change agent, but New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is discussing the need for a new tone in presidential politics. Of course, that's easy for him to say. He's got the money to be taken seriously and the inspiration of Robert Fulghum-style simplicity.

Invitees are gathering in Oklahoma for a conference on post-partisanship hosted by former Demcratic Sen. David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma. Featured guests include a bipartisan mix of current and former politicians including Sam Nunn, John Danforth, Gary Hart, Christine Todd Whitman, Chuck Robb, Chuck Hagel and others.

One of the most intriguing and buzz-generating guests is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is a poster-boy for post-partisanship. The mayor is a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent and is widely rumored to be considering a third-party presidential bid. Republican Hagel has been rumored as a possible running mate. Bloomberg has denied it, but no one's convinced.

This won't be Bloomberg's first visit to the university. He was just there last spring as commencement speaker. His address was modeled on Seattle author Robert Fulghum's bestselling first book. Bloomberg called it, "All You Really Need to Know You Learned By Commencement." His list of essential things to know: "take risks, don't go it alone, respect others, invest in the future, and give it to them straight." He gave the graduates a sense of his feelings about partisanship in politics:

[I]n my line of work, I think a lot of people need a refresher course. There's simply too much partisanship in government - something I know President Boren agrees with. Today, it's standard operating procedure when Republicans propose an idea, for Democrats to oppose it - and vice versa just because it's not their idea. We watch these leaders repeatedly look to polls rather than to principles. You don't need Will Rogers to tell you that that's not really leadership.

With Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee winning in Iowa, every presidential aspirant is chanting the "change" mantra, including Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Mitt Romney. But what kind of change are they talking about? The new president won't be an incumbent, and both Democrats and Republicans are promising a break with the past. We could have a woman president, or one of mixed race, or our first Mormon. Yet the only two major candidates who promise fundamental political change are Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Ron Paul, both of whom have been excluded from some network-sponsored debates. So much for Fox and Disney's commitment to real change.

What kind of change do centrists-in-suits like Bloomberg and his cohorts offer? They are arguing for change in process more than ideology. A mainstream politics rooted in bipartisanship and a willingness think and act outside the box. How revolutionary would that be? The New York Times offered up an analysis of Bloomberg's politics in a Jan. 6 piece:

[A] close reading of the policies Mr. Bloomberg has promoted during his mayoralty suggests that Mr. Bloomberg actually has a lot in common with one party's leading candidates – the Democrats – and not so much with the other's. Indeed, on issues like gay marriage and gun control, Mr. Bloomberg stands well to the left of top-tier Democratic candidates like Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama.

If that's the case, why note vote for Obama, Edwards, or Clinton instead? Bloomberg doesn't much like the Democratic field. And some analysts say what he offers that's different is a change in tone:

"The space for what I'll call 'fusion politics' is at least as much a matter of tone and temper and basic orientation as it is policy specifics," said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's a tone of very self-conscious bipartisanship," said Mr. Galston, who is supporting Mrs. Clinton for president. "It's a tone of uttering certain uncomfortable truths that partisans of both parties don't want to hear. And it's a way of leading that seems oriented towards unity rather than division. There is definitely a market for that kind of politics."

The question is whether someone coming out of the two-party caucus and primary system can be that person, or whether, at the end of the day, they'll be too compromised by the process. Democrat Bill Richardson has promised to appoint Republicans to his cabinet; Edwards has pledged to resist the special interests (like lobbyists) who corrupt the system; Biden, before he dropped out, claimed that he had the best track record of bipartisanship in the group. Obama offers an inclusive "politics of hope" and says Republicans and independents will be part of his "working coalition," while Clinton comes from a family tradition of strategically co-opting the conservative agenda in order to inch forward a progressive one (reform health care and welfare).

Anticipating the post=partisan conference, columnist Nick Nyhart in The Oklahoman makes an important point to keep in mind: For all the talk of bipartisan cooperation, it's money that drives the parties. Until we reform campaign financing, we'll be hard-pressed to get to a place where true post-partisanship can flourish.

Proof of that is the Bloomberg phenomenon. The only reason he's being taken seriously is that he has pockets deep enough to self-fund his own national campaign. Even then, it's a near impossibility (ask Ross Perot). The irony is you need to be a billionaire to even try to beat the system of money-dominated politics.

That doesn't mean it not worth trying, but you wonder how fundamental a change that could really bring about. It's possible that Bloomberg could break the system wide open, but more likely he would be the new Ralph Nader, tipping a close election to the GOP by siphoning Democratic votes. That thought should give Bloomberg's inner liberal a cause for pause.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.