Many Americans will basically be meeting Mike Bloomberg for the first time today, when the billionaire former three-term mayor of New York City drops an ad costing a reported $11 million during the Super Bowl. Despite have served in office first as a Republican and then as an independent, Bloomberg is now running for the Democratic presidential nomination. He's not exactly unknown (he even once had a funny cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm), but he's hardly as familiar to most voters as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Donald Trump.
But based on his commercial, which is about gun violence in America, Bloomberg has already lost my potential vote. Let me explain.
As a small-l libertarian unaffiliated with any party, my vote is up for grabs in November even if I've gone Libertarian in almost every presidential race in which I've voted (the one exception came in 1984, when as a first-time voter, I cast a vote for Walter Mondale, whose self-deprecating "Norwegian charisma" and honest declaration that he would raise taxes to close the deficit spoke to me). Especially as I get older, I want to be able to vote for a candidate who might actually win and I understand that presidential politics will never cough up someone with whom I completely agree. Indeed, I even parted company with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson on various things despite enthusiastically voting for him in 2012 and 2016.
Rare among libertarians, who tend to dismiss Bloomberg as a petty tyrant for many plausible reasons, I was excited when he jumped into the Democratic race. Sure, he was a nanny stater on steroids when he ran the Big Apple, famous for his what-the-fuck efforts to ban Big Gulp sodas and salt and he was an unapologetic champion of the repressive police tactic known as "stop and frisk" (he's unconvincingly repented now that he's running for president). He remains an idiot and a hypocrite on pot legalization, among other things. It's at least a little disturbing that he's risen as high as fourth in some polls based solely on spending $250 million on ads. His just-announced $5 trillion tax plan is a groaner as well, especially since he doesn't seem interested in cutting spending.
But he's running for president of the United States, so the soft bigotry of low expectations works in his favor. In a Democratic field filled with ultra-lefties such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom want to regulate the hell out of the economy, Bloomberg is a dyed-in-the-wool, unapologetic capitalist who earned his $54 billion net worth the old-fashioned way: by providing an excellent service at a price that customers were willing to pay.
He is thus nothing less than a walking, talking refutation of the "destroy all billionaires" mindset of Democrats such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ("No one ever makes a billion dollars. You take a billion dollars") and former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich (who says billionaires' fortunes have nothing to do "with being successful in the supposed free market").
Like the widely disliked and now-forgotten Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO who flirted with an independent run last year and openly defended free enterprise, Bloomberg has succeeded incredibly in the private sector and unlike his fellow billionaire Donald Trump, his wealth isn't based on working political connections, getting tax breaks, and pursuing eminent domain grifts.
As important, Bloomberg has a real political record to run on. Talk to just about anybody with a five-digit income in New York and they'll tell you that Bloomberg was a good mayor despite the Nurse Ratched flourishes. Unlike the current occupant of Gracie Mansion, the failed presidential contender and groundhog killer Bill De Blasio, Bloomberg made the city safe for commerce, improved the provision of basic services, and forced positive changes in the public school system. He was nobody's idea of a libertarian, but he also oversaw an absolutely booming city.
So I looked forward to seeing him spar with Warren and Sanders on economic issues, mock Joe Biden for never having worked in the private sector, and dismiss Mayor Pete for his unaccomplished tenure in a city whose population is less than New York's was in 1810. As befits somebody who made his mint in New York, Bloomberg is blunt, mean, and nasty and I caught myself daydreaming about the debates he might have with Donald Trump, whom he calls "a failed businessman whose companies went bankrupt multiple times."
But that Super Bowl ad kills whatever minor buzz he gave me. This is how he chooses to intro himself to the voting public? The ad recounts the tragic, senseless shooting death of a young black man, a powerful vignette that Bloomberg's campaign insists will "stop people in their tracks." As mayor and afterwards, gun control was a central concern to Bloomberg, who helped bankroll 2018 candidates who wanted to restrict gun rights and whose website touts his plans to create "more effective background checks," "keep guns out of the wrong hands," "tackle daily gun violence in the hardest-hit communities," "ban assault weapons and protect schools," and "confront the gun lobby head-on."
I believe in Second Amendment rights but I don't have particularly strong feelings on the matter, especially compared to most libertarians. All of the things that Bloomberg suggests are either already basically the law or won't have the effects supporters claim. As my Reason colleague Jacob Sullum has written, background checks will do nothing to stop mass shootings because "perpetrators of these attacks typically do not have disqualifying criminal or psychiatric records." Beyond that, passing more and stricter laws generally don't stop criminals, who don't follow laws, from getting guns. Researchers funded by the federal government concluded that the assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004 had essentially no impact on gun violence and crime. Most important, Bloomberg simply ignores the massive declines in gun-related crimes and violence over the past 25 years. "There were 4.6 gun murders per 100,000 people in 2017, far below the 7.2 per 100,000 people recorded in 1974," reports Pew. Between 1993 and 2015, "rates for crimes using guns dropped from 7.3 per 1,000 people to 1.1 per 1,000 people." The central fact in Bloomberg's ad—"2,900 children die from gun violence every year—is off by 73 percent.
The story told in Bloomberg's Super Bowl ad is moving and sad, but I simply don't understand why the billionaire would focus on the issue of gun violence in such a high-profile setting. In its way, it's as off-kilter as Donald Trump's insistence during the 2016 campaign that violent crime was somehow out of control. Perhaps Bloomberg is trying to signal loud and clear to Democratic primary voters that despite his past affiliations as a Republican and an independent, he is in synch with Democratic fixations and policy priorities.
Maybe the "George" ad will in fact help seal the deal with Democrats, but it leaves me and, I suspect, other independent voters wondering just how different he is from other candidates who are already in the race. I would have much rather seen a commercial that explained how Bloomberg would draw on his business experience and success as mayor of the largest city in the country to grow the economy, tackle looming entitlement cataclysms, and reduce culture-war battles.
The 2020 race doesn't yet have a major-party candidate who offers a compelling, optimistic, and realistic vision of an economically vibrant and socially tolerant nation. Instead we have, on the one hand, an incumbent president who can barely go a few hours without picking fights and signing off on massive spending increases, trade barriers, and immigration restrictions. On the other hand, we have a bunch of Democrats who talk about massively expanding the size, scope, and spending of government while dreaming of new taxes and regulations on virtually every aspect of our lives.
Mike Bloomberg might have offered an alternative to these two exhausting and generally miserable options. Instead, he is dropping millions of dollars on a high-profile commercial that will win him no new followers nor distinguish him from his rivals. Given his billions, Bloomberg can afford to follow his bliss when it comes to campaigning, but I know I'll be looking elsewhere for a candidate to support.