“We’ve got to make them afraid of us."
—Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the New York Times, April 16, 2014
He's an American institution, an icon, his ambition as mountainous as his wealth. He will win hearts and minds. He will commit vast money and time to the issue: guns. He will change the course of an election.
So much for Charlton Heston in 2000. But what about Michael Bloomberg in 2014? On Tuesday, New York's former mayor—and unapologetic poster-child for the so-called nanny state—announced that he would be merging his own gun-control advocacy group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, with Moms Demand Action. The new umbrella organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, will position itself to mobilize voters in state and local elections and develop an aggressive ground campaign to rival that of the National Rifle Association and its five million members. Bloomberg tells the Times that his first gift to Everytown will run to circa $50 million.
Let's count the points in Bloomberg's favor: a personal net worth pushing $10 billion; a passionate coalition of parents (roped in via Moms Demand Action) that Bloomberg has already begun to organize with plutocratic efficiency; and an undeniably stylish website. Of equal importance is the surgical specificity of Everytown's aims. Rather than targeting specific weapons or, as some states have done, limiting access to ammunition, the new non-profit will lobby, advertise, and target voters on the single issue of background checks: sensible waiting periods, stricter inquiries, and so on.
"I haven’t used a gun anywhere other than on a movie set and I’d like to see if we could take them all away. It would be a beautiful thing."
What Bloomberg lacks at present is a charismatic figurehead, someone who speaks with simplicity and benevolence and conjures magnetic energy among a variety of audiences—a PTA meeting, a smallish tabernacle, a demonstration on the National Mall. To see just how crucial such a figure can be, we need only consider America's last landmark gun moment.
As president of the NRA, the late Charlton Heston took a barnstorming tour of swing states during the 2000 election that proved a decisive factor in the campaign (see: Virginia, West). It was Heston's third year as NRA chief, and one that would cripple Gore in the fall. From Elks Lodges to churches and arena-size stages, Heston would look down on crowds of thousands, speaking in personable stentorian like his Brutus on the steps of the curia. A leftist-centrist in the '60s, Heston had moved steadily to the right on various issues but none so much as gun rights. He learned to play the demagogue. That's when we started seeing those “Charlton Heston Is My President” bumper stickers. Clint Eastwood is probably still jealous.
Reporting for Los Angeles magazine, Ed Leibowitz evoked a sense of the tent-revivalism in Heston's Virginia appearances:
There he is, wielding the staff of Moses, holding the reins of Ben-Hur's horses, staring piercingly into the distance with a shotgun broken open at his shoulder.
Should Gore prevail, he warns, the Democrat will be handed "the power to hammer your gun rights right into oblivion. If freedom is in danger, it is our duty to be blinded to all else."
When his words turn guttural, the tendons along Heston's neck stretch taut as a bowstring. The audience, absorbing his message of blood, sacrifice, and peril, also undergoes a transformation. A thousand jawbones strain toward the speaker and are suddenly as resolute as Heston's own. "Instead of fighting to create a nation, we are fighting for its survival," he proclaims. "When you pull the lever to vote freedom first, you are doing no less than our forefathers pulling the trigger against the tyrants at Lexington and Concord."
That's the kind of elemental, gut-kicking stagecraft that Bloomberg's machine will have difficulty matching. Meanwhile, more and more southern politicians of both parties are using assault weapons in campaign ads, mowing down copies of the Affordable Care Act and the Cap-and-Trade Bill. (Evan Osnos has a good piece on this craze in the New Yorker, while the Daily Show recently compiled some of the more colorful TV ads in question.)
Bloomberg's solo anti-gun projects have tended to founder. He interceded in Colorado's 2013 recall elections that hinged on the gun issue, losing his $300,000 investment to the NRA's superior organizing machinery.
There's another major impediment to the Bloomberg scheme: the surging influence of out-of-state donations on regional races. The Supreme Court ruled on April 2, in McCutcheon v. FEC, that overall campaign contribution limits were unconstitutional; in essence, the justices further broadened the already expansive latitude that mega-moneymen such as Sheldon Adelson, the Kochs, and Art Pope have exploited in favor of their pet issues. The NRA and its wealthier members contribute to stand-your-ground ads in certain states, while out-of-state contributions helped fund the conservative push to pass California Prop 8 in 2008. That was before Citizens United. Compared with the still-growing political clout of billionaire bundlers, Bloomberg's $50 million starts to sound like walking-around money.
For now, Bloomberg will have to make peace with the national Democratic Party—a group with whom his alliance grows both deeper and more complicated every day. “You can tell me all you want that the Republicans would be worse in the Senate than the Democrats,” he said to the Times. “Maybe they would. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.”
An informal survey of all the moms I know suggests several promising Everytown spokespeople. My proposal of Mark Ruffalo earned a 100 percent yes-please rating from the mothers, while elsewhere someone suggested Jennifer Lawrence. A truly fun candidate would be the musclebound, super-likable Mark Wahlberg, a devout Catholic with serious crossover appeal who stars in action films and distrusts U.S. gun culture.
“I believe Charlton Heston is America’s best villain because he loves guns so much,” Wahlberg once said. “Certainly, I haven’t used a gun anywhere other than on a movie set and I’d like to see if we could take them all away. It would be a beautiful thing.”
(Wahlberg has one thing in common with Heston—neither guy trusted gorillas.)
Can Bloomberg recruit a Wahlberg type—someone who proves that barrel chests and excess testosterone are not politically deterministic? The very suggestion is cynical. It's also a good idea, a way for Bloomberg to play moneyman while keeping his divisive face off of the posters.
If the hill in Everytown is steep, there's one person who expresses lots of confidence. It's Michael Bloomberg. "I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed,” the ex-Mayor told the Times. “I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close." Bloomberg should remember that the Christian church survived Rome without deep pockets, on the strength of charismatic standard-bearers whose respective escapes or martyrdoms fortified shared communities of peace and faith. Acolytes cannot gather around abstraction. With luck, Bloomberg will find his steps, and his mouthpiece.