But Bloomberg is no centrist, no matter how much he cultivates the label. His policy positions are not the "moderate," reasonable middle ground between extremes. No, the right word to describe Bloomberg is "statist." He's the leading exemplar, even more than Sanders, of addressing problems "pragmatically" by hitting the big red button labeled "government."
Advocating for federal intervention at the height of the financial crisis in 2008, Bloomberg on "Meet the Press" delivered arguably the single most succinct summation of do-something governance: "Nobody knows exactly what they should do, but anything is better than nothing."
The hastily conceived "anything" in this case included using taxpayer money to cover for the reckless decision-making of the country's wealthiest financial institutions, an outrage so blatant it helped spark not one but two populist backlashes: the Tea Party on the right and Occupy Wall Street on the left.
Such is the track record of panicky government crisis responses, the most notorious of which Bloomberg has dependably backed over the years.
The Iraq War? He still doesn't regret his support, which led to such awkward-for-2020 moments as the then-mayor praising President George W. Bush during the 2004 Republican National Convention for "leading the global war on terrorism."
How about covert, warrantless surveillance of Americans exercising their political and religious rights after 9/11? Check. The drug war? As recently as last January, the onetime pot enthusiast turned overseer of the marijuana arrest capital of the world called legalizing marijuana "perhaps the stupidest thing anybody has ever done." (He only very recently altered his prohibitionism to advocate decriminalizing individual possession "if you have a small amount.")
Back when he was promoting his version of centrism as a trans-partisan independent in 2012, Bloomberg depicted his effort as anti-ideological "problem solving." In reality, the only limits on problem solving — at least until that pesky Constitution is applied — are governmental capacity and politicians' ability to identify problems. And boy, does Bloomberg see the latter everywhere.
People, for example, don't always eat healthfully. So in the name of public health, as mayor he went after, among many other things, food carts, trans fats and salt, lecturing to a United Nations General Assembly meeting that "there are powers only governments can exercise, policies only governments can mandate and enforce, and results only governments can achieve."
When courts blocked Bloomberg's infamous efforts to limit the size of sodas, his response was equally ideological. "We have a responsibility as human beings to do something, to save each other, to save the lives of ourselves, our families, our friends and all of the rest of the people that live on God's planet," he proclaimed. "And so while other people will wring their hands over the problem of sugary drinks, in New York City, we're doing something about it."
If you're detecting a line of governmental paternalism toward citizen-subjects — including but not limited to his post-mayoral leadership role in restricting people's access to guns and electronic cigarettes — Bloomberg will cop right to it. Addressing sin taxes in a 2018 interview, he said: "Some people say, well, taxes are regressive. But in this case, yes they are! That's the good thing about them, because the problem is in people that don't have a lot of money. And so, higher taxes should have a bigger impact on their behavior and how they deal with themselves." He added, "The question is, do you want to pander to those people, or do you want to get them to live longer?"
Thankfully, Bloomberg's brand of statism, unlike that of Sanders, at least recognizes that the government does not have limitless capacity, either in terms of resources or competence. So he'll occasionally veer in policy directions such as expanding school choice and acknowledging that trillion-dollar deficits are a flagrantly irresponsible risk.
But unlike Sanders (or, depending on the day of the week, Trump), Bloomberg does not apply that logic to some life-or-death issues such as foreign policy, surveillance and policing. In a New York Times candidate questionnaire, Bloomberg backed Trump's legally dubious drone killing of Qasem Soleimani, said he would keep troops in Afghanistan at least until the end of his first presidential term, and said he would preserve the option to use military force to protect oil shipments and prevent nuclear tests by Iran and North Korea. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, he advised Americans to buck up and get ready for more intrusive levels of surveillance: "Our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution I think have to change."
As for policing, back when he was still defending New York's controversial "stop, question and frisk" policy — that is, until he launched his presidential campaign — Bloomberg justified shaking down innocents, mostly black and Latino, as a way to discourage people from carrying guns. At least one federal judge didn't share his enthusiasm for these wholesale discriminatory, unreasonable searches.
There is nothing inherently centrist about a police state. To the extent that people who imagine themselves to be in the ideological middle support politicians who repeatedly back government prerogative over individual rights, our coming Trump-Sanders moment may provide an opportunity for self-reflection.
Americans don't much like being bossed around. And the serial, unacknowledged failures of the do-something class have made ideological deviants like Trump and Sanders look a lot less scary to a lot of people. Maybe when "centrist" politicians look less statist, more of us politically homeless types will find them more attractive.
"It's the government's job to have good science and to explain to people what science says or how to take care of themselves and extend their lives," Bloomberg posited during Tuesday's debate in South Carolina. "We are a country where there are too many people that are obese. We should do something about that."
Hopefully, he won't get that chance.
A version of this article first ran in the Washington Post.