Ex-New York mayor and business tycoon Michael Bloomberg just cancelled his short-lived campaign to run as an independent candidate in the 2016 presidential election.
Bloomberg’s reason for bowing out was that a three-way race might have resulted in a stalemate in the Electoral College, in which case a Republican-dominated House of Representatives would have selected Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
Bloomberg and Trump are both New Yorkers, and casual friends. But Bloomberg, a fiscal conservative and social liberal, was blunt in his fear of a possible Trump presidency, calling him both “divisive and demagogic.” He also cited Cruz’s “extreme” and “divisive” views on immigration.
(Thank you, Mr. Bloomberg).
After hearing the news, I drifted back in time to remember two notable “outsiders” who made noise in presidential elections.
George Wallace was a Southern Democrat and governor of Alabama for an astonishing 16 years at various times between 1963 and 1989. He ran for the presidency in 1968 on the American Independent Party ticket.
Wallace was an unapologetic racist. His most famous quote was from his 1963 gubernatorial inaugural speech:
In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!
In 1968, Wallace ran for president against Richard M. Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. He lost the election, but he’s the last third party candidate to get a state’s Electoral College votes (five states, all Southern).
Some historians consider his contentious and polarizing politics, which have enormous appeal to many lower-income whites, to be the model for contemporary politicos like Trump and Sarah Palin.
In his final years, Wallace, a paraplegic after an assassination attempt in 1972, became a born-again Christian and moved away from his earlier harsh views on race. He apologized to civil rights leaders, and he appointed numerous blacks to various political offices.
John B. Anderson was a Republican Congressman from Illinois. Until 1980, he was little known outside his home state, conspicuous mainly for being a vocal critic of fellow Republican Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
By 1980, though, Anderson was feeling alienation from fellow conservatives, who had disliked his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his more recent support of a grain embargo against the Soviet Union (other Republicans feared it would hurt their standing with U.S. farmers) . He decided to run in the Republican presidential primaries.
One early appearance in New Hampshire, in front of an NRA forum, brought Anderson favorable media attention. While other Republicans pandered to the pro-gun audience, Anderson talked about reducing handgun purchases by criminals through mandatory firearm licensing. He was booed offstage. But the event played to a national audience, and reporters portrayed him as a man of courage and integrity.
Anderson did well in the New England primaries, just barely coming in second in Massachusetts and Vermont. But he could not carry the later states, and his poll numbers started to decline. He declared himself an independent in the spring, running against President Jimmy Carter and eventual Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan.
Anderson’s intellect, candor, political moderation, and image as an outsider appealed to a broad cross-section of voters: Republicans less conservative than Reagan, Democrats disenchanted with Carter, independents, college students, activists, intellectuals, and celebrities. But the well-oiled Democratic and Republican machines proved too strong: Anderson won merely 7% of the vote on Election Day.
Despite this, Anderson is remembered as the first “reasonable” third-party presidential candidate, and one who challenged the notion that a candidate had to give his audience what they want. Anderson argued that Reagan’s proposal to combine tax cuts with defense spending, although popular, was a recipe for disaster. Carter refused to debate him, which, along with the ongoing Iran hostage crisis, rendered Carter a weak leader in the eyes of voters.
After the 1980 election, Anderson remained active in political foundations and third-party politics. Today, he’s 94 and a visiting university professor.
Getting back to Michael Bloomberg… I don’t know a whole lot about him. But what little I’ve heard I like. It’s a shame he couldn’t have started his campaign earlier, and maybe run for one of the two major parties. Third party candidates are certainly interesting. But America has always been a two-party nation. Each party swims in wealth, and each also possesses a rich legacy, with loyal members passing their torch to children and grandchildren.
The Bloomberg-Trump scenario has continued a standard: Trump is criticized, reporters rush to get his reaction, Trump scowls then points to the fawning throngs that rally around him. Then his poll numbers inch higher.
But – without mentioning names – such has been the case throughout history (and empires have also toppled). This hasn’t deterred Trump supporters. Maybe it’s the old Sam Cooke song lyric: “Don’t know much about history.”
Or, even more disturbing: maybe it’s because Americans just can’t resist a good song and dance man.
(Photo of Michael Bloomberg courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashen)
(Photos of George Wallace and John B. Anderson in Public Domain)
(Photo of Jimmy Cagney from Warner Brothers film “Yankee Doodle Dandy”)