The Eighteenth Brumaire of Michael Bloomberg

Politics, US Politics

On October 2, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City, announced that he was seeking reelection to a third term. Under normal circumstances, the announcement by an incumbent officeholder that he intended to run again would hardly qualify as major news, except that Bloomberg is currently prohibited by law from serving more than two consecutive terms in office. The announcement came as something of a surprise, as Bloomberg had earlier opposed the extension of term limits, but for the Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent billionaire, consistency to principle has never been a significant hurdle when it was placed in the path of personal ambition.

proponent of term limits, just not his own

Michael Bloomberg: proponent of term limits, just not his own

The New York City term limits law was itself the product of thwarted ambition. Ronald Lauder, heir to the cosmetics fortune, spent $14 million of his own money for the privilege of losing the 1989 GOP mayoral primary to Rudy Giuliani, who then proceeded to lose (at far less cost to himself) to David Dinkins in the general election. After that experience, Lauder began to see the wisdom of term limits.  This time Lauder spent a paltry $1 million to get a referendum on term limits approved by the voters in the 1993 election. Unfortunately for Lauder, it proved unnecessary to pass a referendum to put a term limit on Dinkins, as Giuliani and the voters of New York took care of that themselves. Just as the Republican framers of the 22nd Amendment sought to prevent another Democrat from being elected again to more than two terms only to see their own Dwight Eisenhower become its first victim, so too did the New York GOP push for term limits only to have it take effect right when Rudy Giuliani entered office.

Giuliani, a supporter of the term limit referendum, came to regret his initial enthusiasm when, on September 11, 2001, the date of the mayoral contest, certain events occurred that made it necessary to postpone the election. Giuliani stayed in office as an emergency measure for the next three months, and only grudgingly left after unsuccessfully attempting to convince the state legislature in Albany to overturn the term limit law.

Diminutive media mogul Michael Bloomberg replaced Giuliani and proclaimed his loyalty to term limits. He even called attempts to repeal the law “disgusting” and “an absolute disgrace.” But that was before Bloomberg discovered that there was a crisis facing New Yorkers, a financial “meltdown,” that called for “continuity in municipal leadership.” Even Ronald Lauder has succumbed to this line of reasoning, stating: “My personal belief in ordinary times is that two terms is the appropriate number … however, these are extraordinary times and we are in the midst of a financial emergency.”

What Bloomberg and Lauder conveniently forget is the vastly more serious crisis that New York faced in 2001 and which still did not earn Giuliani a free pass on the term limits law. Indeed, we will be replacing a president in the midst of this financial crisis; why then is a mayor indispensable? In truth, the only crisis that Bloomberg is concerned with right now is the impending end of his second term in office. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, when a politician knows he is to lose his job in a year, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

That is not to say, however, that term limits are a good idea in themselves. Democracies already have the means in place by which to replace officeholders: they’re called “elections.” Term limits laws are the collective cry of the voters at the ballot box, as they plead with their legislators to “stop us before we vote again!” An informed electorate has no need of term limits, which, come to think of it, is perhaps why term limits legislation is so popular.

Bloomberg, now convinced that term limits aren’t such a good idea after all, wants the city council to ratify his coup de main rather than holding a referendum. The city council, of course, is also subject to the term limits legislation, and its members would be granting themselves an extension as well by overturning the law. No doubt we shall soon discover that everyone involved in New York City government is irreplaceable in these dark times, but then it should come as no surprise when people who are the judges of their own actions identify their private advantage with the public good.

Bloomberg can look for guidance in the actions of Louis Bonaparte. Elected president of the French republic in 1848, he too faced an impending term limit, which was set to expire in 1852. But those were also times of crisis which needed continuity in leadership, at least according to Bonaparte, and so he seized power in 1851 and had himself elected emperor, thus effectively ending term limits entirely. It is not uncommon, then, to ratify the actions of the leader with some mock ceremonial that at once simulates the democratic process and subverts it. The dead, as they say, will be left to bury their dead. And Bloomberg, the man on the white horse, the indispensable hypocrite, can take the credit.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. nimh  •  Oct 11, 2008 @4:57 pm

    Maybe Bloomberg just needs to find his Medvedev.