If it weren’t for the intricate machinery of party governance, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 76, might be the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee in 2020 and president in 2021. He is sensible and seasoned.
His major drawback is that he is a billionaire, like the incumbent, though far richer than Donald Trump. My favorite odds-maker puts Bloomberg’s chances at about 4 percent. Starbucks entrepreneur Howard Schultz, another billionaire, is going fold his bid sooner or later, just as asset-manager Tom Steyer did his last month, but Bloomberg isn’t going away. He hasn’t declared yet, so it’s much too soon to speculate about possible pathways to the nomination. Therefore, invest a few minutes in a little background.
Bloomberg’s biography is the first thing. Lengthy profiles will be written. I’ve read a few in the past, including Joyce Purnick’s 2009 biography, and I look forward to reading more. But meanwhile, I took advantage of the January thaw to visit his boyhood home in Medford, Mass. It is not far over the Mystic River and through the woods from my office in Somerville.
The Bloomberg family moved to a modest two-story colonial house at 6 Ronaele Rd., in 1945, when he was 3. His father, an accountant for a dairy company, born in Chelsea, Mass., bought the deed from his lawyer in order to circumvent a tacit ban on sales to Jews in the newly developed subdivision.
William Bloomberg died in 1963, at 57. Charlotte Bloomberg lived there until she died in 2011, at 102. Her son visited her frequently, and paid for a redesign of her synagogue, but Bloomberg himself left Medford in 1960 for Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Business School and Manhattan. His loose ties with the little city in which he grew up were nicely explored in 2012 by New York Times reporter Michael Grynbaum.
A second thing worth knowing about Bloomberg has to do with some changes last year in his business. You may remember how be got into the news business, by reverse engineering it. With the $10 million severance payment he received after Phibro Corp. acquired Salomon Brothers in 1981, Bloomberg – who had previously been banished to the firm’s back office – founded a bond-data business of his own. The real-time databank he assembled, equipped with a steadily growing battery of analytic tools, was vastly superior to the tables that newspapers offered in their financial pages. Bloomberg was able to sell subscriptions to his desk-top terminals for prices eventually reaching $20,000 a year.
In 1990, he hired Matthew Winkler, a Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, to build a staff for the brand-new Bloomberg News. The newsroom grew at an astonishing pace, until it had become one of the world’s largest news organizations, with 2,700 editors, reporters and commentators, arrayed in 150 bureaus around the world. The company put much of its news reports on the Web for free, but access to the whole remained the privilege of the high-paying few.
In 2009, Bloomberg bought the venerable BusinessWeek magazine from McGraw Hill, reorganized its coverage, and put his name on the cover. In 2015. he hired John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist, to oversee all of Bloomberg News, and shape up a staff that had grown in ramshackle fashion. Last summer, the company took another important step towards becoming a proper news business, placing its previously free consumer news behind a metered paywall, offering full-access subscriptions at $35 a month, and slightly more content for $40 a month.
That strategy – It’s-Worth-What-You-Pay-for-It – brought Bloomberg News more nearly in line with the practices of The New York Times, The Washington Post, the WSJ and the Financial Times. It also made Bloomberg himself seem more of a newspaper publisher, complications and all, than a technocrat. (Bloomberg’s Rich List doesn’t mention the boss; Forbes pegs him at around $48.5 billion.)
What’s the third thing about Bloomberg? It is the observation with which I began. If he were 10 years younger, a good deal less wealthy, and fresh out of office, he’d likely be the front-runner in the presidential race now taking shape – ahead of four inexperienced senators, a former vice president and a thoroughly tarnished incumbent.
True, Bloomberg’s negatives are high with some traditional Democrats – stop-and-frisk policies as mayor, intimate ties to Wall Street, and a proudly prickly personality. Can the party leadership swallow their pride long enough to win an election? Bloomberg is old – 77 this month. Can the rising generation continue to work the ‘tweendecks of politics for another few years? What if Beto O’Rourke, 46, endorsed him? Would he enter the race if Joe Biden decided to run? (Perhaps not. Here, from The Atlantic last week, is Edward-Isaac Dovere’s well-informed account of Bloomberg’s planning.)
A term or even two of a Bloomberg presidency would give the nation intelligent and even-handed leadership. The major parties would have time to groom a new generation of leaders and narrow their differences somewhat. However unlikely it may be to succeed, Bloomberg’s candidacy is worth taking seriously.
David Warsh, a veteran columnist and an economic historian, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this piece first ran.