Dispelling the Myth of the Moderate Michael Bloomberg

Democratic presidential contender and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is banking on moderates and centrists to tip the scales in his favor. He’s marketing himself as an anti-ideologue and bridge-building pragmatist who can rally disaffected Republicans and Independent voters around his middle-of-the-road platform. “One of the reasons I’m reasonably confident I could beat Trump is I would be acceptable to the moderate Republicans you have to have,” Bloomberg told Reuters in an interview last weekend. “Whether you like it or not, you can’t win the election unless you get moderate Republicans to cross the line. The others are much too liberal for them and they would certainly vote for Donald Trump.”

I am precisely the type of voter that Bloomberg is courting in this year’s presidential race. I’m a lifelong Independent and left-leaning moderate. I have voted for Democrats, Republicans, and third-party candidates. I support raising some taxes on the wealthy, but the class warfare politics of the progressive left does not resonate much with me. I support universal healthcare but am deeply concerned about the potential drawbacks of a single-payer system. I respect Bernie Sanders’ experience and principled consistency, and I think Elizabeth Warren is much smarter than her right-wing critics give her credit for, but I’d feel much more comfortable casting a ballot for a more moderate nominee.

Yet I cannot imagine any scenario in which I would ever hand my vote over to Michael Bloomberg. 

Bloomberg may not be a committed progressive or diehard conservative, but that does not make him the savvy, rational moderate he wants you to believe he is. His entire brand is constructed around the idea that one of the chief responsibilities of government is to micromanage the lifestyles of individual people so as to spare them the consequences of their freedom to choose. Simply put, Michael Bloomberg is an unapologetic, big-government paternalist.

Bloomberg kicked off his love affair with the power of public office by first targeting smokers. Politically, it was a smart play. The risk of blowback was minimal given the growing unpopularity of smoking, and he was never in any real danger of having to answer legitimate questions about whether some of his measures went too far. In 2012, however, he created a more noticeable stir with his proposed ban on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, which pulled his paternalistic governance into the national spotlight and elicited accusations of nanny statism. Around this same time, he was busy fending off criticisms regarding his support for the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, which the NAACP once characterized as “massive street-level racial profiling.” It was a two-front war that would ultimately end in defeat for Bloomberg. 

In 2013, during the final year of Bloomberg’s last term as mayor, U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin determined that the city’s execution of its stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutional. Judge Scheindlin was later removed from the case, and Bloomberg vowed to appeal the decision. But in 2014, Bloomberg’s successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, followed through on a previous campaign promise to drop the city’s appeal. That same year, Bloomberg’s proposed soda ban suffered a similar fate when the New York Court of Appeals plunged the final nail—or straw, you might say—into the ban’s coffin.

From the outside looking in, Bloomberg’s propensity for prohibiting or regulating virtually anything that posed even the slightest risk to public health, as well as his support for a stop-and-frisk policy that was ineffective and dehumanizing, had at first appeared to me to be a case of good intentions taken too far. But that illusion was shattered when he implemented new guidelines to heavily restrict the availability and distribution of certain painkillers in public hospitals. Under the policy, emergency room doctors were advised to not prescribe more than a three-day supply of narcotic painkillers to their patients. Additionally, emergency rooms were instructed to stop prescribing long-acting opioids like OxyContin, fentanyl patches, and methadone. Bloomberg’s decision wasn’t terribly difficult to justify; the opioid crisis was well underway at the time, and the guidelines themselves were voluntary. But it did raise several important questions that Bloomberg would have to address. How would these guidelines affect low-income and uninsured patients who relied on emergency rooms for their primary care? And what about patients who legitimately needed more than three days’ worth of painkillers to deal with their afflictions? What were they supposed to do if they had to wait more than three days to see the appropriate doctor and obtain the proper prescription? 

Bloomberg’s response to those concerns was infinitely more disturbing than the actual guidelines. On his weekly radio show with cohost John Gambling, he made it clear that if the new policy caused a few innocent people to needlessly suffer, he was just fine with that

“Somebody said, oh, somebody wrote, ‘Oh then maybe there won’t be enough painkillers for the poor who use the emergency rooms as their primary care doctor.’ Number one, there’s no evidence of that. Number two, supposing it is really true, so you didn’t get enough painkillers and you did have to suffer a little bit. The other side of the coin is people are dying and there’s nothing perfect. There’s nothing that you can possibly do where somebody isn’t going to suffer, and it’s always the same group [claiming], ‘Everybody is heartless.’ Come on, this is a very big problem.”

Bloomberg’s flagrant indifference to the potential unintended consequences of the new guidelines came as no surprise to critics familiar with the calculus behind his policymaking. His preoccupation with his own collectivist agenda blinded him to the potential moral and legal pitfalls of the countless rules, regulations, and programs he supported as mayor, such as his administration’s ban on food donations to public homeless shelters. If he believed a policy would benefit more people than it harmed, his support for that policy was virtually guaranteed even if it came at the expense of the rights, freedoms, or welfare of a marginalized minority of New Yorkers. That’s one of the reasons why he stood up for stop-and-frisk for as long as he did; in his view, the indignities suffered by city residents at the hands of law enforcement were a small price to pay for a slightly safer city—and, of course, another achievement he could brag about during election season.

But that’s not how the typical moderate operates. When presented with a pressing issue, moderate politicians will usually try to strike what they believe is a healthy, sustainable balance between individual liberty and government power. They don’t obsessively focus on expanding the government’s ability to more directly and more frequently interfere in the lives of its constituents. Bloomberg prefers the latter approach because he believes in the superiority of an elite class of leaders and legislators—the bureaucratic class—who he is convinced are the only people capable of rescuing us from our own worst inclinations and indulgences. He also understands that government is the most effective instrument for that task, hence his ongoing campaign to extend its reach well beyond established boundaries.

Center-left voters looking for a candidate to rally around ought to steer clear of Michael Bloomberg. His ego-driven paternalism is both indistinguishable from President Trump’s authoritarian style and antithetical to the very notion of political moderation. Besides, there are plenty of more personable, more moderate, and more viable candidates in this race for voters to choose from, all of whom stand a much better chance than Bloomberg of winning the hearts and minds of “Never Trump” Republicans and putting Democrats back in control of the White House in 2020.

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