The President holds steady at a 1-outta-3 approval rating. Congress counts a faint 29% of respondents as fans. The War in Iraq won’t end before the Bush administration packs its bags. And the 2008 race for the White House has offered little indication that the unrelenting growth in spending, entitlements, and immigration that we’ve all come to expect from terminal Government will end anytime soon. Until this week, the big flash of excitement came courtesy of Fred Thompson, who became the most noteworthy of the GOP candidates by not officially running. In a premature campaign clogged with choreography, Thompson’s improvisations — the rewritten speech, the video beatdown of Michael Moore — offered, at a minimum, entertainment for the jaded, and at most dangled the hope of a primary season that wasn’t paint by number.
But one Fred Thompson does not an epochal election make. The return of politicians who never really left (Giuliani, McCain) and the arrival of politicians who seem to have been around forever already (Romney) provokes a cry for the truly weird, the left-field personae and the rending of rulebooks that would make an open Presidential race all that it could be. The return, say, of Newt Gingrich, from the pit of obscurity and alternate history novels that had engulfed him for the past decade. Or the decision of Michael Bloomberg to run a billion-dollar campaign financed entirely out of pocket — as an independent.
Now we’re talking. Goaded into what would appear to be action by the actor-senator absorbing the world’s supply of buzz, Newt drops by ABC News to announce the “great possibility” that he’ll make a decision at the end of September. Thrills! More popular than Rudy himself, at least in New York City, Bloomberg leaks to the Washington Times news of his own 800-pound gorillatude. Chills! News reporting on the likelihood of breaking news is hotter than ever. Is all the hubbub enough to actually cause something to happen in the world outside the pressroom?
This correspondent’s bet is yes. When finally released from those Hollywood obligations, Fred will make it official, and Newt’s window of opportunity will open for a moment he will never see again. No longer will Newt be the Lone Ditherer, the half-serious has-been who overthinks everything to compensate for not thinking anything through, the guy who’d rather know when he sits down for Meet the Press that Speculation is Running Rampant than know when he sits down for Meet the Press that he’s Actually Running for President. With Fred in the race, Newt will be the guy who turns Fred’s quirky one-off bid into a Second Wave — a grassroots resurgence of lifeblood, manna from heaven for Mainstream Conservatives. With Fred in, Newt will look less like a copycat and more like a kingmaker. Rudy can handle the thought of Fred making a quick splash. Rudy probably needs a couple martinis to handle the thought of what Fred and Newt will do to his poll numbers for many consecutive news cycles. Mitt — the man everyone thought would be killed in the cradle by Fred on the first day he jumped in — has shown his support can withstand the shock of one big name with conservative bona fides. But two? It’s a fine line between double digits and single digits, and the margin of error is merciless.
So what if Newt’s public statements on Iraq and terrorism and the third or fourth or whichever World War don’t quite meld into something coherent? So what if Newt’s last high-profile venture involved solving the Health Care Crisis together with — Hillary? The Second Wave is not about prepackaged politics. Newt is not in it to be the Republican Bill Richardson. He is in it to be the vision guy, the extemporaneous speaker who doesn’t meander, the old guru made new again because he’s like Karl Rove would be if Karl Rove was a manly intellectual. He’s not just an architect, he’s a futurologist. Don’t look back to those cover-page cartoons of Baby Newt in a diaper, shutting down government ’cause he can’t get his way. Look forward, America!
IT’S NOT AN AWFUL IDEA, primarily because we appear unable to see where we’re going, or at least unable to admit it. It seems therefore both astounding and yet utterly sensible that the most banal, efficient, wealthy, and heroically mediocre prefect of the Imperial City wants to run the most corporate anti-establishment Presidential campaign of all time — moving directly past the primaries to Go, able to spend over twice the entire net worth of Mitt Romney as the nominee of the Bloomberg Party.
Bloomberg’s window is even narrower, even more gleaming, than Fred’s or Newt’s. The last time all of America’s sitting politicians were so doomed and despised was 1968, and the ruthless culling of popular heroes that struck that season — RFK, MLK, Wallace, etc. — seems like part of the ancient history of a foreign land. Many people would sooner vote, in the privacy of their own home, for Johnny or even Hiram Walker if given the choice between Rudy and Hillary or McCain and Edwards. If you like Obama on social issues but worry that America Inc. is a failing business, Bloomberg’s your man. There are just enough people sick enough of both parties to make this pitch sound human.
It may all come down, as we’ve grown accustomed, to the electoral map — the old reliable of the political adrenaline junkie. If Bloomberg adopted a campaign strategy of hunting exclusively for big game, he could carry the election with no victories but New York, Florida, Texas, California and either one of California’s state suburbs — Nevada and Arizona. And consider: if the GOP lost both Nevada and Arizona to Bloomberg, but kept Texas, the election would once again come down donkeys and elephants in Ohio.
Don’t laugh. In a race featuring Fred and Newt and Bloomberg on the side, the Republican Party is likely to be more, not less, genuinely conservative, and the Democratic party more liberal — and more big states than ever would seriously be in play. The dread and ennui that gave Ross Perot one of four votes after running the worst campaign in history are even stronger, now, and Bloomberg, if anything, is no freak with a chicken leg pointer and a penchant for visual aids. What’s so far been one of the most yawn-inducing races in history could take a turn beyond anyone’s control: a throwback to a bygone era when we didn’t play politics half the way that politics played us.