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Talking politics with Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg

TOKYO -- Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman, philanthropist and former three-term mayor of New York City, says Florida Gov. Jeb Bush could "run the railroad." The same goes for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is speaking about the ability of these former and current U.S. presidential hopefuls to run the country.

      He has his doubts, however, about Republican front-runners Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. So strong, in fact, are Bloomberg's misgivings about those men that he scrapped his plans to enter the 2016 presidential race on a third-party ticket. He feared that throwing his hat into the ring would end up putting one of them in the White House.

     "That is not a risk I can take in good conscience," Bloomberg said in a March 7 statement announcing his decision to not run.

     In an exclusive interview with The Nikkei, the founder and owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP talks about the presidential contenders, the state of U.S. democracy and the impact of globalization. 

Q: Why did you decide not to join the presidential race? 

A: The system is designed for a two-party system. And those two parties have an interest in keeping third parties out. There's too much of the structure that works in the two-party way. They will keep the third party out.

Q: There seems to be talk in Washington that the Republican Party may split. 

A: It's possible. But we have always had, remember, small groups of both parties that split off. There were the "blue dog Democrats." There were the "Dixie Democrats." Democrats were never going to, ever again, pull together.

     I don't think there's much difference between the two parties. I think whatever their constituents at the moment want, that's what they believe. If their constituents changed, they would change overnight. In fact, you see Hillary moving very far to the left. You see all the Republicans moving very far to the right.

Q: What motivated you to consider running from a third party? 

A: Because I think that ... none of [the candidates] have the courage to do what's right for the country. And I have, now, two grandchildren, which I didn't have before. I'd like to leave them a better world.

Q: Were you not satisfied with Hillary Clinton or former Republican candidate Jeb Bush? 

A: I thought Jeb Bush would have made a good president. He was on the board of my foundation. He's very conservative, much too conservative for me.

     But he's very good on immigration, he's very good on education. He's a smart guy. He could, as I describe it, run the railroad. Kasich could run the railroad. Hillary Clinton can run the railroad. Running the railroad is the most important thing. You have got 4 million employees; you've got to make the system work, and it doesn't work very well.

     But I think that most of the candidates can't run the railroad, and I still worry that whoever gets elected will have policies designed for political rather than practical reasons.

Q: Does that mean you support Clinton? 

A: I didn't say that. I'm not going to talk about supporting somebody for a long time. We have got seven months till the election. And I don't know who the two party candidates are going to be. You can bet -- a good chance of Hillary, a good chance of Trump -- but not 100% in either case.

     You've got to give people a fair chance of saying what they believe, and then you've got to decide, "Do you believe 'em?"

Q: Is the American public ready for a female presidency? 

A: Yeah, I don't have a problem with a woman being president; I just want the best candidate. She's going to decide war, peace, and health, education, livelihood for my kids. I want the best person.

Q: How do you interpret Bernie Sanders' popularity? 

A: It's exactly the same as Donald Trump's. It is a bunch of people who are disaffected with what the establishment has done, and they are striking out. Do they have any clear idea of what they want as an alternative? No. The candidates that they have surrounded themselves with either have no idea or are promising things that are so impractical they will never get done.

     But the main claim to fame, I think, of Bernie Sanders -- who I've never met; I'm sure he's a pleasant guy -- [is that] he's certainly not stupid.

Q: You know Trump personally, right? 

A: Trump I've known because we cut ribbons together at golf courses and that sort of thing. He's a pleasant guy when you're with him. I've played golf with him twice, oh, probably 10, 15 years ago.

     But I think both of them have [chances] because they are not the establishment, not for who they are.

Q: Sanders and Trump supporters are frustrated and filled with anti-establishment sentiment, correct? 

A: Yes.

Q: Is that a sign that U.S.-style democracy is in danger? 

A: No, I think it's a sign that the establishment is going to have to change. For too long they never thought about the average person, because the average person is not organized.

     You know, politicians generally respond to who is going to help them get elected and re-elected. The average person is not organized. This is the first time the average person has had a chance to organize.

Q: What do you think about the rise of China and Putin's Russia? 

A: Well, if I remember, Russia, 20 or 30 years ago, you'd get shot trying to leave. Today, Russian tourists are all over the world. You have Russian oligarchs with big yachts all over the world. The Russian economy is way down because of the price of oil, and because the USSR was a big chunk of it.

     You know, Russia today is, what, 200 million people? In land mass, it's probably 50 times the size [of Japan], in natural resources a hundred times the size! Russia's not doing all that badly. The public there -- not everybody -- but they have things that the West offered, [that] were only available in the West a long time ago. 

Q: What about China? 

A: The same thing is true in China. Go walk the streets of Beijing. It's pretty hard to argue it isn't a modern city. Now, if you go outside [of Beijing], in the rural areas, that's true. But rural America, you can say the same thing, in Appalachia there's an awful lot of poverty and lack of education.

Q: How would you rate globalization so far? 

A: Well, you have to understand, we have better communications and better transportation, so people know what's available elsewhere and can get a message out, and you can move things. And you [can] say that the economy is more unpredictable.

     We have reduced poverty in the world by 50% since the year 1970 -- the number of people who go to bed hungry, the number of people that have to sleep without a roof over their heads, the number of people that are illiterate.

     The world is better. We haven't had a world war in a long time. We do have mass movements of people out of Syria and North Africa. But, fundamentally, if you take Japan, you're complaining that the economy isn't booming, they'd like to have slightly higher inflation. Look at the streets! The people have smiles on their faces, they're hustling and bustling and going places, they're well-dressed, there's lots of construction going on. It's kind of hard to feel sorry for an economy like this.

     You can buy almost anything anyplace in the world. You can get it delivered in 24 hours. You can pay for it on credit or just by swiping something. So, I don't know that the world is worse off, in that context, than before.

Q: Is there anything that you are especially worried about? 

A: I'm worried about the world because of nuclear proliferation; I'm worried about the world because there's chaos in the Middle East, and I think the Iranian deal [to lift sanctions] is going to continue the Shia-Sunni battles, the Persian-Arab battles.

Q: But you are not pessimistic about the outlook for democracy or liberalism? 

A: I think Churchill said it was "the worst of all systems except for all the others." And that's probably true. It's never gone easily.

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