In a radio interview a few days before the New Hampshire primary, the conservative satirist P.J. O’Rourke—himself a Granite State resident—revealed that in 2016, after a lifetime of supporting Republicans, he walked into a voting booth and marked a ballot for Hillary Clinton. He did this neither happily nor particularly willingly, explaining, “I went in, I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I stuffed my ears with cotton and marked [Clinton] off because New Hampshire is a swing state and I just couldn’t do it.”
By “it,” O’Rourke meant voting for the nominee of his own party, on the grounds that that candidate, Donald Trump, was simply too beyond the pale as a human being to justify installing in the Oval Office and passing a bunch of Republican-friendly legislation.
In other words, faced with a pair of evils, O’Rourke chose the lesser of the two—even as the very thought of Hillary as the nation’s chief executive filled O’Rourke with a bottomless supply of nausea, dread and general ennui.
Now that Mike Bloomberg has ascended to the top ranks of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field, I understand exactly how he felt.
From the very beginning of the 2020 campaign—really, since November 9, 2016—I have been in complete concordance with the majority of my fellow liberals in vowing to vote for the eventual Democratic nominee come hell or high water, on the grounds that the imperative of de-Trumpifying the executive branch must take precedence over every other consideration. More than ever, the perfect cannot be made the enemy of the not-completely-terrible.
And for virtually all of 2019, this tacit agreement went more or less without saying, insomuch as every last Democratic hopeful seemed, to varying degrees, like a perfectly palatable representative of the anti-Trump resistance in matters of both policy and character. While it was inevitable that not every liberal voter would be entirely satisfied with how the primary process ultimately shook out, there was real confidence—much more so than in 2016—that the sheer horror of four additional years of President Trump would shock the party electorate into putting their differences aside and falling in line behind a single candidate for the greater good of the republic.
If that nominee is Mike Bloomberg, all bets are off.
To be clear: Should the two names on the ballot on November 3 be Trump and Bloomberg, I will side with Bloomberg without a moment’s hesitation. Having lived in the New York metro area for a chunk of Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor, I have long admired and appreciated his relentless efforts to make America’s largest city greener, healthier and safer than ever before, even when questioning his means of doing so.
That said, in the years since he relinquished the reigns from the Second Hardest Job in America, Bloomberg’s personal and professional shortcomings have come into dramatically sharper focus—particularly the horrific impact of his baldly race-based approach to crime fighting known as “stop and frisk.”
Following Bloomberg’s debut performance at last week’s debate in Las Vegas—during which he pooh-poohed the myriad sexual harassment suits against him as bawdy jokes gone awry—it has become quite clear that the ninth richest man in the world is a fundamentally nasty and empathy-free windbag who regards the American presidency not as a prize to be won but as a commodity to be purchased. Elections? Strictly optional.
It begs the question: Even in a lesser-of-two-evils context, what exactly would we left-wingers be voting for here? With a President Bloomberg, which of Trump’s many vices would we actually be ridding ourselves of, and what new benefits would we be getting in return?
Sure, Trump is a racist pig, but is the architect and lead cheerleader of “stop and frisk” really that much of an improvement? Yes, Trump is a would-be authoritarian who delights in delegitimizing the free press, but is it any less troubling that Bloomberg literally owns a major news organization and has forbidden it from investigating him for as long as his campaign—and, in theory, his presidency—lasts? (As Bloomberg charmingly explained, “I don’t want the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me.”) And certainly, Trump’s record of mistreating women is singularly revolting, but Bloomberg’s binders of NDAs with female underlings doesn’t quite cry “change we can believe in,” does it?
I know, I know: Having ruled over a city of eight million people for 12 years constitutes an infinitely more appropriate dry run for the presidency than hosting a TV show or bankrupting multiple casinos. And when push comes to shove, Bloomberg really does take major crises like climate change and gun control seriously and presumably has the gumption to ram legislation through even the most obstinate Congress.
The question is: How many moral compromises are liberals prepared to make in the mere hope that, if elected, Bloomberg will deliver the goods on a handful of pet issues, transformative though they might be? How much rationalizing and whataboutism will be required to convince ourselves that an arrogant, sexist, aristocratic robber baron should be the face of both the Democratic Party and the nation at this particular moment in history?
Whatever the answer is, the calculation is eerily reminiscent of that made four years ago by conservatives, who were forced to ponder just how much Trumpian nonsense they were willing to endure for the sake of tax cuts and a right-wing judiciary. Some, like P.J. O’Rourke, decided the tradeoff simply wasn’t worth it. Most—then and now—looked the devil in the eye and signed on the dotted line.
Even against the devil himself, is this a road Democrats want any business walking down? After cycling through some two dozen possible alternatives over the past year, do we find that the anti-Trump party’s one true savior is a pompous, plutocratic misogynist who has contempt for the First Amendment and believes all problems can be solved with money?
Seems like a bad look to me, but then I’m not a Democrat, so what do I know?