In retrospect, Michael Bloomberg’s speech on Wednesday may have been the most important of the Democratic National Convention. By explicitly framing the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as a clash between sanity and insanity, between competence and incompetence, the former New York City mayor provided a framework not only for Clinton’s acceptance speech but for the rest of the campaign.
“Let’s elect a sane, competent person with international experience,” the Republican-turned-independent said in his plodding manner. “The bottom line is: Trump is a risky, reckless, and radical choice, and we can’t afford to make that choice. Now, I know Hillary Clinton is not flawless. No candidate is. But she is the right choice and the responsible choice in this election.”
It’s a little after 11 p.m. With the all-important question of whether Jeb Bush will finish third or fourth in New Hampshire still unanswered, allow me to anticipate two names we’re going to be hearing in the days ahead: Michael Bloomberg. And Joe Biden.
In fact, it’s already started. And the results of the first-in-the-nation primary guarantee that it’s only going to intensify.
Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, is the more plausible of the two names given that he’s letting it be known he’s considering an independent run. The New Hampshire results make it more likely, not less, that he’ll keep gearing up for a possible campaign.
Consider what the Democrats did to themselves. Everyone was expecting Bernie Sanders to beat Hillary Clinton. But he handed her such an unexpectedly crushing defeat that she can’t help but emerge as a damaged candidate. She’s still likely to win the nomination as the campaign moves on to states with substantial African-American populations. But she’s looking more vulnerable than ever in November, provided the Republicans manage to choose a nominee who is recognizably of the human species.
Oops. Donald Trump also won big tonight. Although he fell considerably short of a majority, he got about 35 percent of the vote, far ahead of second-place finisher John Kasich. The Iowa winner, Ted Cruz, an extremist much loathed within his own party, was running third, just ahead of Bush. Marco Rubio, who seemed to be emerging as a contender until his circuit board malfunctioned at last Saturday’s debate, faded to fifth.
So the Democrats are stuck with a diminished Hillary Clinton or, less likely, a 74-year-old left-winger who—if conventional wisdom means anything at all anymore—probably could not win a general election. And Trump, detested by a majority of the public, may be on a glide path to the Republican nomination.
Of course, the conventional wisdom also holds that an independent can’t be elected president. But if the Democrats and the Republicans both nominate candidates who are unacceptable to the broad middle of the electorate that decides elections (and yes, I realize that the broad middle is a lot smaller than it used to be), then surely there is an opening for someone like Bloomberg, a moderate with a reputation for competence. Yes, he’s dour, uncharismatic, and has a well-deserved reputation for nanny-statism. But it’s precisely those non-scary qualities that could make him a viable alternative.
And the media are stoking a Bloomberg run. The veteran media critic Jack Shafer wrote for Politico earlier today that “as Bloomberg works his way through the editorial food chain and breaks through the primary election news, I’m certain reporters will be setting themselves on fire to convince their editors to assign them to Bloomberg.”
Count me as someone who thinks Bloomberg might actually be able to defeat Sanders and Trump, if that’s what it comes to.
Which brings me to a Biden candidacy, a far less likely possibility. Unlike Bloomberg, Biden has declared pretty definitively that he wouldn’t enter the race. It’s also too late logistically for him to enter the Democratic primaries.
But Biden would make some theoretical sense if the race between Clinton and Sanders ends in a muddle, or if the email controversy in which Clinton is embroiled leads to legal trouble. In either case, so this line of thinking goes, the Democratic National Convention might turn to a respected non-candidate like Biden as the nominee.
Is this going to happen? Almost certainly not. A brokered convention is a quadrennial fantasy, but it is almost impossible under the modern primary system. Still, if you search Google News for “Biden 2016,” you’ll find that plenty of people are giving the idea some thought.
For my purposes, what matters isn’t what is going to happen. Rather, it’s what you’ll be hearing from the media as the two major parties, suffering from self-inflicted wounds, limp ahead. New Hampshire not only didn’t settle anything. It left us with a race that won’t be settled for some weeks to come.
Stephenson, an alumnus of the Boston Globe, the Atlantic and WBUR Radio, argues that though the media have in recent years finally moved beyond the false equivalence of balancing the scientific consensus with the views of a few fringe denialists, news coverage of climate change remains polite to the point of timidity. Stephenson writes:
Our most respected climate scientists … are increasingly clear and vocal about one thing: we’re rapidly running out of time to address climate change in any meaningful way and avoid the risk of global climate catastrophe, with the incalculable human suffering that it will bring, quite possibly in this century.
In the face of this situation — as much as it pains me to say this — you are failing. Your so-called “objectivity,” your bloodless impartiality, are nothing but a convenient excuse for what amounts to an inexcusable failure to tell the most urgent truth we’ve ever faced.
What’s needed, Stephenson says, is for the media to move beyond the political near-silence that has descended over the climate-change issue and instead focus relentlessly on the subject.
It’s a good, important piece, and you should read it. Nevertheless, I have some quibbles.
First, I think Stephenson, for all his experience, misapprehends the limits of journalism. It’s not like our best news organizations have ignored climate change. They’ve reported on it frequently, prominently and with great skill. But they’ve done it in an oxygen-deprived environment. That is, a story in the New York Times or on network television, no matter how it’s played, is not going to get the sort of traction Stephenson would like to see without the oxygen of an engaged political system.
That’s not to say Jim Lehrer, Candy Crowley or Bob Schieffer couldn’t have put President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney on the spot during the presidential debates. But that wouldn’t come close to the intensity generated by genuine political engagement, congressional hearings and the like. Climate change has slid off the public agenda. Journalism’s ability to force it back onto the agenda is not nonexistent, but it is limited.
Second, Stephenson’s argument does nothing to answer the sinking feeling I get whenever I read about climate change — that it’s already too late in many respects, that nothing we can do would offset the massive damage that is already occurring and that, essentially, we’re screwed. I’m not suggesting we be spared the truth. But that’s not the sort of message likely to lead to much more than sullen desperation.
Ironically, as I finish writing this, we are learning that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endorsed Obama precisely because the president takes climate change more seriously than his opponent. Citing Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg wrote:
Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.
So maybe facts on the ground — and in the sky, and the oceans — will accomplish what journalism has not: force all of us to take climate change seriously. Of course, we can’t pretend to know the relationship between Sandy and global warming. But it’s worth asking whether the storm was more severe than it would have been absent climate change; whether more storms like it are occurring; and whether Sandy caused more devastation than it otherwise would have because the seas are higher than they used to be.
Don’t misunderstand me. I completely agree with Stephenson and his observation that the mainstream media tend to seek consensus over difficult truth-telling. Maybe events like Sandy, and leaders like Michael Bloomberg, will start to change that consensus.
Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.