NORMAN, Okla. — Underlying all the good-government talk of bipartisanship at a gathering of moderate politicians here Monday was an implicit warning to the presidential contenders: Listen to us, or deal with Michael Bloomberg down the road.
With attention focused ever so briefly on this high-powered “unity” forum, the group leader, former Democratic Sen. David Boren, urged the presidential candidates of both parties to promise to create a “unity government” if elected, with a bipartisan Cabinet and a list of bipartisan national security policies.
He demanded that the candidates directly answer whether they would appoint Republicans and Democrats to their Cabinets.
“If the parties don’t rise to the occasion and answer these questions specifically, I certainly think there will be people who say to Mayor Bloomberg, ‘Why don’t you do it?’” said Boren, who is president of the University of Oklahoma.
“I don’t think he would close the door on it if he thought it was his duty. But I don’t think it’s his ambition.”
Underlying the Bloomberg-for-president hype, however, is an increasing feeling that the message of change behind the surging candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) could actually keep Bloomberg out of the race.
On the campaign trail, Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee, the Baptist minister who was governor of Arkansas, have shaken the political establishment, challenging the status quo — something very much on the minds of the bipartisan group gathered in this college town.
“If Obama gets the nomination, that would deter the mayor from running, because Obama will be talking about uniting the country,” said one of the forum participants, who did not want to be quoted by name but was involved in closed-door discussions this weekend with Bloomberg and others.
“It would require a little closer evaluation” if Obama is the nominee, said Andrew MacRae, a Virginian who is the unofficial leader of the Draft Bloomberg movement.
Bloomberg has “done the polls. He understands what conditions are optimal” for entering the race, MacRae said.
Such optimal conditions, according to experts and pollsters studying Bloomberg’s moves, would be a Clinton-Romney race.
Bloomberg and his aides see such a race as representing the polarizing status quo that has turned off many voters and could create an opening for a third party.
“The change message is playing out on both sides, along with conciliation and unity,” said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Bloomberg but is unaffiliated in the current presidential race.
“Bloomberg's messages are driving the process on both sides of the aisle. That is the dominant theme of campaign 2008.”
Boren and many of the other former Democratic and Republican senators here tried to keep the forum focused on bipartisanship and common-sense solutions to the country’s problems.
“We’re not here to encourage or discourage support for any particular candidates,” Boren said.
“We do see encouraging signs [with the Iowa caucus results] that even the existence of this meeting may be having an impact.”
Bloomberg’s star power, exhibited on the eve of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, was evident here as about 1,000 people packed a campus music hall and spilled into a nearby overflow room.
At least five New York newspapers and three TV stations covered the conference, along with 150 other credentialed members of the media.
Yet for all the hype, Bloomberg stuck mainly to the script, talking about the need for common-sense solutions.
And for the third time in a week, he said he was not running for president.
“I’m not a candidate,’’ he asserted. “I’m a former businessman and a mayor.”
The New York mayor, however,couldn’t resist tweaking the political establishment.
He said the recently passed energy bill didn’t do enough, the proposed farm bill merely benefited 10 percent of big agribusinesses and the current educational policies did not advance the country’s ranking in education.
“People have stopped working together, government is dysfunctional. … There’s no accountability today,” Bloomberg said.
“Nobody is holding themselves accountable for what they promised when they ran for office. … Congress seems to focus on the small things until the public gets so frustrated that they have to act.”
Bloomberg and about 15 other former Republican and Democratic moderates held a private dinner Sunday night at Boren’s historic campus home and reconvened Monday to hash out a joint statement of bipartisan principles.
The group’s official policy statement painted a dire picture of America’s future, proclaiming that the nation’s status in the world has dropped, too many people lack health care, the educational system is failing and entitlements threaten to bust the budget.
Yet the group demanded no specific solutions, other than to call on presidential candidates to agree to a “government of national unity,” a bipartisan Cabinet and “specific strategies” for reducing polarization in government.
“All the members of the panel are optimistic the candidates will listen to us and will understand there is a deep need in this country ... to have candidates face the big issues,” Bloomberg said.
“If we can be a catalyst along those lines, then we’ve really accomplished something.”
In addition to Bloomberg, the group included Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.); former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican; and former Sens. Charles Robb (D-Va.), John Danforth (R-Mo.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and William Cohen (R-Maine).
Another participant, Angus King, who served as governor of Maine as an independent, said he saw the 2008 climate nationally as similar to the divisive partisanship that led to his emergence as a successful independent candidate in Maine.
“We’re in a similar place,” King suggested. “The point is not, 'What are the problems?' The point is, 'How do we solve them?'”
But Graham, who himself flirted with a presidential run in 2004, said the group was not pushing for a third party.
“We didn’t come here to form a third party,” he said. “We came here to reform the two-party system.”
Besides, Graham pointed out, a New Yorker named Teddy Roosevelt was one of the most revered figures of his time — and pulled in just 27 percent of the vote in 1912, the most ever for a third-party contender.