The Gray Lady Has a Crush on ‘Gangly Liberal’ Bill de Blasio

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Bill de Blasio.
Bill de Blasio. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

July, in the chronology of the New York City mayor's race, was the month of Anthony Weiner's crotch shots, dim photographic encounters that achieved the peculiar cultural flattening that politics sometimes can, in which very lowbrow topics are rendered worthy of highbrow discussion and very highbrow topics made the subject of lowbrow consideration. The mayoral campaign inspired essays on the psycho-aesthetics of the cell-phone dick-shot, clarifying notes from cultural critics here and in Israel on the legacy of the Alexander Portnoy character in fiction and real life, the launch of the nude modeling career of Sydney Leathers (which even porn stars thought a bad idea), as well as a generalized and entirely forgivable public disgust. August has been quieter, thankfully, and less florid, but it has contained its own drama. Twelve days in, it has been the month when the New York Times fell in love with Bill de Blasio.

"A gangly liberal is quietly surging into the top tier of the field by talking about decidedly unglamorous topics: neglected hospitals, a swelling poverty rate, and a broken prekindergarten system," the paper's Michael Barbaro enthused on August 4, calling a day on the campaign trail with de Blasio "a reminder" of the city's "unaddressed grievances and glaring disparities." The next day, the Times' former editor Bill Keller wrote his first column about the mayor's race — a profile of de Blasio that cast him as the protagonist of the campaign, describing the race as a choice between those (Christine Quinn, Bill Thompson) who would mostly uphold the Bloomberg legacy, and de Blasio, who would reverse it. Two days later, there was a warm portrait of de Blasio's family ("De Blasio takes his modern family on the campaign trail") — in that story, the Times mentioned Thompson's wife in passing, but with such disinterest that it misspelled her name. Part of this interest is simply driven by public opinion: De Blasio has picked up some of the progressives who abandoned Weiner, and the polls now show de Blasio in a close third place, within shouting distance of the runoff. But by making himself a figure of such stark opposition, de Blasio is also offering liberals — and the Times itself — a way to have the argument they have been trying to have for the better part of a decade, about the tension between the Bloomberg city and their own liberalism.

Bloomberg himself has always been an out-of-time political figure — a pragmatist during a decade when politics grew ever more ideological, an unabashed friend of wealth and advocate of development in a city that was growing more skeptical of both. De Blasio, in phrasing his anti-Bloombergism in the same terms that liberals have used to protest Wall Street and civil-rights violations and swelling income inequalities, is trying to make the contradiction explicit. One mark of his success is that Bloomberg's partisans are beginning to take aggressive aim at him, as a challenge to their legacy: "A u-turn back to the 70s," griped Bloomberg's deputy mayor Howard Wolfson, assessing de Blasio's proposals.

On the one side is your liberalism, de Blasio is trying to say; on the other, your affinity for the city that Bloomberg built. Choose.

The obvious target for de Blasio — the great, orienting prize — is the endorsement of the Times itself. Because de Blasio has little institutional or union support, his chance for victory relies on his sweeping the votes of the city's professional liberals — of Greater Park Slope — a status that the Times alone can deliver. The Times' editorial page, under the leadership of the iconic liberal writer Andy Rosenthal, endorsed Bloomberg three times. But Rosenthal's editorial page has also done a great deal during the last decade to nudge intellectual culture a bit further to the left, not least by pioneering some of the same language — of economic inequity, of the police-state abuses of stop-and-frisk and the war on drugs — that de Blasio has made into his campaign themes. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed hard to imagine that the Times might endorse de Blasio. But as the public advocate has edged up in the polls, as he has attracted some enthusiasm from the Times' own reporters, and as Bill Keller has begun to write about the election as a "referendum" over Bloombergism, the possibility has come to seem a little less remote. Just yesterday, the paper editorialized in favor of de Blasio's long-shot plan to save community hospitals, something that the paper's own reporters had recently seemed to consider a stunt, praising the public advocate for having "elevated an important issue on which Mr. Bloomberg long ago checked out." It is not hard to imagine that logic being extended to a whole range of de Blasio's 99-percenter issues: affordable housing, homelessness, policing. You can begin to see, in other words, the outline of the argument that the Times could make. 

The matter of the Times and de Blasio is just one small subplot in a vastly complicated and interesting campaign. But it does seem a marker — both of whether the liberal enthusiasm for Bloombergism will outlast Bloomberg himself and of how complete the leftward movement of liberal opinion will be.