There are many prisms through which to view the still-sprawling Democratic primary, but one I think is the most helpful is the politics of the possible vs. those of the impossible. On one side, there are candidates such as Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., championing change and the expansion of the social welfare state. On the other are the politicians of the "can't do" persuasion - the ones who come up with different rationalizations for why we can't have the nice things other first-world societies take for granted. When you hear Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., complaining about "magic genie" promises of free college or South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg grousing about how that same thing would result in "millionaires and billionaires" getting a freebie, you are seeing this.
Then there is former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who announced his candidacy Sunday. He is simultaneously promoting his competence while also telling voters what they can't have. He also, almost certainly not coincidentally, is worth in excess of $50 billion.
As a fourth-generation New Yorker, I can tell you my native city can feel all but impossible to corral. During his 12 years as mayor, Bloomberg gave the impression to many that he succeeded in that all but hopeless task. Parks improved on Bloomberg's watch, and crime fell. Schools improved. Restaurants got health grades. But in other ways, the record was less impressive. He's the mayor who presided over - and defended until a few days ago - stop-and-frisk, a policy that disproportionately targeted African American and Latino youths and was ultimately ruled unconstitutional. Despite a significant and mostly successful push to increase affordable housing, inequality and housing costs soared. Shortly before Bloomberg left office, a poll found a staggering 85% of residents complaining that New York had gotten "too expensive for people like them to live in."
Bloomberg was far from sympathetic to these concerns. He infamously described the city he governed as a "luxury product." His track record on raising the minimum wage is less than ideal. While he endorsed a plan to raise the state's minimum wage in 2012, he also claimed in a 2015 interview, "I've never been in favor of raising the minimum wage."
Expense, you see, is something that concerns Bloomberg - expense, that is, when it affects the wealthiest taxpayers. And this is where we get to the politics of "can't do." He refused to promote universal pre-kindergarten on the grounds that it was "phenomenally expensive." (It became law under his successor Bill de Blasio.) He complained about proposals to increase taxes on the richest New York residents, saying they were "dumb" and would "drive everybody out of the city." Median household income in New York is less than $60,000, so who is this "everybody" he speaks of?
This "can't do" attitude has carried over to national politics. Bloomberg has claimed we could "never afford" to fully revamp our health-care system and implement Medicare-for-all. "It's totally impractical," he said of free college tuition. Though Bloomberg claims in his debut presidential campaign ad he'll raise taxes, we know it won't take the form of the wealth taxes championed by Sanders and Warren. He's called their ideas "probably unconstitutional" and compared their plans with the faltering government in Venezuela. (This earned him an approving nod from Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist's rabidly anti-tax organization.)
True, Bloomberg is a generous philanthropist, and he's given significant funds to issues ranging from climate change to gun control. But the claims of financial responsibility and political impossibility to push back on desperately needed reforms while promoting his own personal charity reveals the truth behind the "can't do" agenda. It's about control and money - who has it, and who does not.