Michael Bloomberg and the Case of the Homeless Republicans

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Miami Beach, Florida.

America’s homeless have lately been joined by a new group: wealthy, moderate Republicans whose home has been seized by Donald Trump after they were long made to feel unwelcome in their old neighborhood. Democrats, always sympathetic to the displaced, now face a choice about whether to take in this new population of the uprooted and forlorn.

No one better embodies the homeless Republicans than Michael Bloomberg, who has recently been reported as mulling a race for president as a Democrat. According to Forbes, Bloomberg is the tenth richest person in the world, with a net worth of $53 billion, and he is spending $80 million of it to support Democratic candidates for the House this year. Democrats are certainly glad to have that financial support.

They are also glad to have the support of the reclusive hedge fund manager Seth Klarman (net worth, $1.5 billion), who after being one of the Republicans’ biggest donors has shifted his contributions to Democrats in 2018. In a rare interview, Klarman told Bari Weiss of The New York Times that he is spending more on political campaigns than he ever has: “We need to turn the House and Senate as a check on Donald Trump and his runaway presidency.”

Bloomberg and Klarman are only the most conspicuous examples of a large group of donors who hold liberal views on social issues along with more conservative positions on economics. It is not a new experience for Democrats to be torn between appealing to contributors with those preferences and appealing to working-class voters on a more populist basis. The influx of money into the Democratic Party from the center-right is only going to heighten those tensions. 

That conflict, moreover, is symptomatic of another battle that will play out in the Democratic Party in the next two years: whether to try to capture the center abandoned by the Republicans or to move left. A few victories in this year’s primaries for the House by progressives may have given the impression that the party is moving left. But nearly all the Democrats who have won the primaries for governor and senator—the major statewide races—have been mainstream liberals who are sticking closer to the center.

That’s one reason for not dismissing Bloomberg’s potential support in the presidential primaries in 2020. Bloomberg may seem out of sync with the party because of his relation to Wall Street and his stop-and-frisk policing policies as mayor of New York, but he has been a leader on climate change, gun control, reproductive rights, and public health. There is a significant constituency of Democratic voters who will be drawn to him on the basis of those issues. 

Many states, furthermore, have open primaries that allow voters to choose which party to vote in. If the outcome in the Republican Party is a fait accompli, moderate Republicans as well as independents could pour into the Democratic primaries and vote for Bloomberg. While a large number of candidates compete for the same progressive voters, Bloomberg could be alone in the center. The fragmentation of the Democratic field may prevent any candidate from emerging from the primaries with a majority of pledged delegates. So even if he fails to win the nomination, Bloomberg might win enough delegates to be a kingmaker.

At age 78 in 2020, Bloomberg will have obvious limitations as a presidential candidate besides his awkward fit with the Democratic Party, and he may well decide in the end not to run. But, one way or the other, homeless Republicans and their money will pose a challenge for Democrats.

The Democrats’ challenge will be to keep the moderates on board in a common front against Trump and the rightward drift of the Republican Party. Democrats especially have an interest in dissuading wealthy moderates from running as independent candidates or forming a third party that would likely play the role of spoiler. They will want support from voters as well as donors with socially liberal views despite disagreements on economic policy.

But Democrats should not, and generally do not, want their own party to turn into the old Rockefeller wing of the GOP. Moving in that direction would be a political disaster at a time when the party needs to rebuild its support among working-class voters.

Ideally, the old moderate wing of the GOP would recover and give the United States a reasonable center-right party. But because there’s no prospect of that happening anytime soon, the Republican homeless are likely to seek influence in the Democratic Party and try to make a home for themselves there. 

“Home,” Robert Frost wrote, “is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Democrats, generous souls that they are, ought to take in homeless Republicans. It’s just that they shouldn’t allow themselves to get taken over.

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