New York is a national capital again. It is still unofficial, of course; no one wants to undo the deal Jefferson and Hamilton made in 1790, with Washington getting the legislators and New York getting the money. But after the reelection of George W. Bush last week, the city’s political primacy is real in another sense. If kicking in one third of John Kerry’s campaign war chest hadn’t certified it already, Kerry’s defeat certainly does: For the next four years, at a minimum, New York is the capital of the opposition.
New York has always attracted people who didn’t feel at home in the homogeneous majority. Now the city will become Lyons, the capital of the French Resistance during World War II. Well, perhaps we’ll be more Echo Base, the capital of the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, a strange outpost on a frozen planet. Yes, last Tuesday was for many a dark day (only 24 percent of New Yorkers voted for George Bush—and that’s including Staten Island). But the future is bound to be an exciting time, if infuriating.
One of New York’s senators, Chuck Schumer of Brooklyn, will be in the middle of the Senate judiciary committee’s fight against reactionary Supreme Court nominees—at least until he runs for governor. And New York’s junior, suburban senator, Hillary Clinton, is the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination—at least until the party remembers how many empathy-challenged Northeastern liberals have won the White House lately.
A centrist Democratic brain-trust-in-exile, or White House Cabinet-in-waiting, bides its time in New York: Robert Rubin, Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton. The executive director of MoveOn.org, Eli Pariser, lives in a fourth-floor Manhattan walk-up. The instruments of the city’s media power—the Times, the TV networks, Jon Stewart—will be further demonized under Bush II, reinforcing their centrality to the city’s self-image. The city also has a chance to set a democratic example—as a place where difference is tolerated and there’s plenty of morality without moralizing—which could spur a reinvention of the Democratic approach. Or it could simply wallow in Bush hate.
“New York has often been out of sync with the rest of the country,” says Thomas Bender, a professor of history at NYU. “That goes back to the time of the Constitution, when they moved the capital away. One of the things that New York is good at is going on its own and doing its own thing. Obviously, there are limits to what you can do on your own. But there’s a pretty good history of New York thinking about itself. It’s one of the things that the rest of the country doesn’t like about New York. But it may be one of our greatest assets.”
Attitude had better be our strongest asset. Because the kind of asset flowing from the federal budget is going to be mighty scarce for the next four years. A long list of issues central to the city’s character and beliefs are in jeopardy during the next Bush term: money for public schools and the construction of public housing, religious tolerance, legalized abortion, to name just a handful that don’t involve the invading of other countries. The president’s reelection is also likely to damage the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, though whether that’s a good or bad ramification is open to debate. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine the Olympic committees of other nations giving the nod to an American city, particularly when the other leading contender is . . . Paris.
“Transportation funding is the only area in the federal budget where New York gets more back from Washington than we send,” says Tom Wright, the executive vice-president of the Regional Plan Association. “Now, though, states like Georgia, where people drive more, are pushing for federal transit dollars to be distributed based on how much gasoline tax is collected within each state.” The existing, favorable–to–New York formula was due for long-term congressional reauthorization last summer, but Democrats went for a short-term extension instead. “I talked to Jerry Nadler and other Democratic congressmen, and they said, ‘We’ll do a continuation because we think we can get a better bill out of President Kerry,’ ” Wright says. “Ha, ha.”
New York will be like Lyons, the center of the French Resistance in World War II—or like Echo Base in Star Wars, a strange outpost in a frozen world.
So the bad joke is definitely on us. The pervasive postelection despair is warranted. While the city’s share of federal education money did increase in the past four years, most of the possible upsides of Bush II are along the making-chicken-salad lines: The president wants to privatize Social Security. The biggest immediate beneficiary would be the securities industry, which would issue the private-investment accounts. And where is the headquarters of the securities industry? New York is also home to thousands of millionaires, so bring on more upper-income tax cuts!
But go to the shrink, unload your fantasies about both Air Force One and Two going down, and realize that there are a few reasons for uncynical hope. Michael Bloomberg, for one. The mayor is, after all, a Republican. When he was trying to sell the city on the idea of hosting the 2004 Republican National Convention, Bloomberg talked about the boost to hotel, restaurant, and tourist business during the traditionally dreary weeks of late August. That didn’t quite work out, with the convention’s bottom line roughly neutral, pending the civil suits sure to be filed by arrested protesters.
Bloomberg had better be right on his other major pro-convention argument: that hosting thousands of New York’s enemies was an essential marketing opportunity, and not just to red-state tourists. “We’re selling ourselves to members of Congress,” said Kevin Sheekey, the mayor’s chief deputy for convention planning. Sheekey is a longtime Washington insider who was tutored by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Back in August, Sheekey claimed that the game was about geography, not party affiliation. “The challenge for New York City is not a Republican challenge,” Sheekey said, standing in a Madison Square Garden hallway as workers hammered convention bunting into place. “The challenge for New York in Congress—and even, to some extent, in the administration—is a rural-urban challenge. When [New York Republican congressman John] Sweeney put an amendment on the floor to move more money to New York and other large cities, it was defeated not along Republican lines. It was defeated on rural-urban lines. That’s really the fight. New York needs to make its case to people whose self-interest is not to help us.”
Unfortunately, last week, even more of those people were elected to the Senate and the House. Bloomberg gave $7 million out of his own pocket toward Bush’s reelection. His Democratic opponents in the 2005 mayoral race are already blaming Bloomberg for helping defeat Kerry. For his own electoral sake as well as the city’s welfare, Bloomberg needs to make his investment in Bush pay off in more than just a fairer distribution of federal anti-terrorism dollars.
The mayor does have a few key Washington allies. Sweeney, whose district is outside Albany, has pushed the city’s case for distributing homeland-security money according to terrorism-threat levels. Another upstate Republican is crucial to the city’s prospects in Washington. Tom Reynolds just ran the successful campaign for the National Republican Congressional Committee, and he’s a deputy majority whip. “The president governs with fairness, and that’s important,” Reynolds says. “In addition, sometimes politics is about relationships. Our governor enjoys a tremendously close relationship with the president. And it’s no secret how much Rudy Giuliani lent his time and energy and stature to surrogate work for the president. And Mayor Bloomberg did a fantastic job as the chief host of the RNC. New York pleasantly surprised America—particularly Republicans from the South and the West and the Midwest. That can only help in goodwill.”
All the fond memories of Alabama delegates who took in Bombay Dreams, however, are no match for raw political calculus. Ask Reynolds when the formula for homeland-security money will actually be changed to benefit New York, and his victory-glow happy talk gives way to Beltway mush-speak. “We know where Bush is on that. He’s responded to the aspect of looking at threat-formula consideration,” Reynolds says. “But we’re also in a situation where we have nine New York Republicans in Congress. Florida has 19, California has 20, and Texas will soon have 22. We can no longer demand many of the things we could when we had a sizable delegation.”
It would be swell to get our share of the pork, at least to keep the subways running. But what’s going to sustain the city for the next four years is attitude, not policy.
The morning after the presidential election, at nearly the exact time that John Kerry, in his Beacon Hill townhouse, is giving up on Ohio’s provisional ballots, a Moroccan family huddles against a brutal wind on lower Broadway. They’ve been waiting for hours for an immigration appointment, trying to straighten out the family’s residency status. Shavir Eridis, the husband and father, is stylish in Rocawear; Saadia, the mother and wife, demure in a head-scarf. Eridis studied to be an English professor when he lived outside Casablanca. Now he sells hot dogs from a cart outside an NYU dorm. “In Arabic, we have a saying which I can’t quite translate completely,” Eridis says, glancing at his 6-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. “But it says that even if an insect has a child, he sees it turning into a gazelle. Everybody dreams of their child being higher than themselves. But it wouldn’t happen in Morocco for us.”
New York is a place driven by dreams and tenacity. It’s a place that has endured the pain of two planes knocking down the World Trade Center. George W. Bush has just been reelected? We’ve dealt with worse. We’re gonna be fine. This is New York, dammit.