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Rudy Who?

Mayor Mike's delivery may have left something to be desired, but his message came through loud and clear: Everyone needs to get real about the budget shortfall -- even the Yankees.

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So, I began to think last week, maybe Mike Bloomberg is a smarter politician than his campaign gave us reason to think. In a few short days, he has already -- diplomatically, adroitly -- placed a lot of distance between himself and Rudy Giuliani while at the same time putting Democrats, unions, and bureaucrats on notice.

I don't think many people would have said, even as recently as a few weeks ago, that he could manage this. As a candidate, he did nothing adroitly, except spend. In the debates, he was all over the lot. He repeatedly demonstrated that wide swaths of this city were alien to him. He stood next to the Republican governor and declared himself a liberal. He seemed to have no idea what he'd gotten himself into.

In some ways, he still doesn't. If you watched his inaugural address looking for inspiration, my guess is you were onto the Gator Bowl or the Lifetime channel within moments. He read an unexceptional text with less panache than most waiters bring to the recitation of the day's specials. It may be that after Rudy's ceaseless paroxysms, people are yearning for a little boredom. But not that much boredom.

And yet: The debut week was a success, no? There is something about his bland matter-of-factness that feels appropriate to the situation at hand. To be sure, he is the beneficiary of necessity -- everyone knows that austerity is in order, so when he calls for it, in his gray-flannel way, no one wails (yet). They will, of course, eventually. But one suspects that histrionics won't perturb him; that he won't be baited by his enemies, as Rudy often was (Rudy loved this, of course); that he'll be so rigorously calm and non-ideological that he won't even have enemies, in the sense that New Yorkers have come to understand them, and in the sense that Rudy consistently made them (cabbies, artists, his wife).

Meet Mike Bloomberg, Triangulator.

I count eight fronts, large and small, on which Bloomberg has already signaled a break with the harsher and more megalomaniacal aspects of Rudyism.

First, there was the stadium thing: Bloomberg has made it clear that he did not appreciate Rudy's last-minute $800 million gift to the Yankees and the Mets. Next came Lincoln Center. He's been a board member and major benefactor, and it represents everything about Citizen Bloomberg's social aspirations. But not even his friendship with "Bubbles? Sills could dislodge his determination that Giuliani's deal with Lincoln Center, under which the city would contribute $240 million to a ten-year renovation, might have to be put on hold (despite Rudy's promise, even post-9/11, to deliver the money).

Third: Bloomberg's announcement that less sacrifice would be expected of the Board of Education than of most city agencies. Imagine Rudy saying that. Number four, imagine Rudy asking the Police and Fire Departments for 10 percent cuts. In the early Giuliani years, when he was cutting budgets, those departments were untouched by cuts. But Bloomberg asked for exactly that. Five is Bloomberg's insistent rhetoric directed at W. about that pesky $20 billion. It was polite, but it was an obviously intentional contrast to Giuliani's November statement that the city couldn't use the money now.

The sixth degree of separation is Bloomberg's dramatic reversal of Rudy's plan to make ground zero a memorial, suggesting that should be only part of the site's future. Seventh: Bloomberg's rhetoric about diversity and openness and partnerships was very un-Rudyesque. Finally, I throw in the presence of Al Leiter as inaugural emcee. If you think Rudy Giuliani was, deep down, pleased about having a Met take center stage, you've been reading too much Mayor of the World spin.

There has not, of course, been an official break, and that probably won't happen for a while yet. There will even be public displays of affection; Rudy and George Pataki might decide, given their national ambitions, that they have to be kind to Mike, who, at least titularly, represents a useful GOP beachhead. And -- this is where the triangulation comes in -- Bloomberg has also made just enough moves to keep the Republican Establishment happy. No new taxes. Business comes first. Roy Goodman gets a cushy job. In addition, Mike has sent the message to liberal constituencies that they'll have to take their medicine as well. Randi Weingarten has already told her troops to prepare for far less than the 23 percent raise for teachers she was pushing during the election (uh, no kidding). The new comptroller and public advocate weren't warned that Bloomberg would challenge them publicly to cut their staffs by 20 percent, but once a new mayor says -- live on national television -- that he's going to do just that, and that they ought to follow his example, what real choice do they have?

Not a bad first week. of course, he hasn't actually done anything yet, and he still has the potential to be dismal. Negotiating contracts and cutting budgets fairly may prove tough for a man who's never had to contemplate either, and there looms the Financial Control Board, which takes over the city's books once deficits reach $100 million or the city's credit rating goes south. If that happens, or even if it becomes a live threat for an extended time, he's over politically. He'll get fried in Albany; Washington will follow suit; the effects will start to show themselves in our daily lives. The papers will ramp up ROTTEN APPLE stories. Prospective opponents in 2005, Giuliani quite possibly among them, will start sharpening their knives.

So who knows? But one of the key survival skills in New York politics is passive deflection. Don't take on every fight unless you've got a personality like Rudy's, let things play out, let people scream at you until they're tired of screaming (the papers will eventually get interested in something else), and be as oblique as you can.

This may be the Bloomberg style. Renouncing Rudy's stadium deals in one vague, quick phrase was far more intelligent than launching an attack for the sake of cheap applause from Rudy haters (which any of his Democratic opponents would have done). Keep both sides guessing about your next move, and about your ultimate allegiances.

I wonder now if Bloomberg knew this all along. I've even begun to wonder, in retrospect, if Bloomberg's calling himself a liberal while receiving Pataki's endorsement was an accident at all. I'm probably giving him too much credit. But there may be an art in his apparent artlessness that's worth paying attention to.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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