Put On a Happy Face

I try to write about polls—overused, overreported, increasingly unreliable; a plague, basically—as little as possible. But when someone goes from a job rating of 65 percent approving and 6 disapproving (think about that; I mean, 6 percent are against the Girl Scouts!) at the beginning of the year to a more earthly 41–46 tally by November, as Mayor Bloomberg has done in the Quinnipiac surveys, well, maybe that’s one poll that’s worth thinking about.

Why? Because it reflects what our instincts are suggesting to us: Has this city soured on Mike Bloomberg already? I was on a panel discussing his mayoralty at the New School on November 12. I presented a mostly positive, though hardly rapturous, assessment. My fellow panelists were more downbeat, and more to my surprise, the audience was, too. Not angry. But definitely grumpy. Puzzled—unsure, let’s say, of what his priorities and civic passions really are—and worst of all from the mayor’s perspective, a little bored.

Odd, because at first, Bloomberg was interesting. He was an unfamiliar type. He came into office as the ultimate blank canvas. This was his greatest boon, even more than his businessman cred, because it allowed us to indulge ourselves in seeing in him whatever we wished. Liberals saw someone who was nicer than Rudy. Conservatives saw a man who won as a Republican, with Rudy’s backing, and who would surely govern according to the laws inscribed on the Manhattan Institute’s tablets. Moderates put off by entropic, status quo muddlers saw a fellow who might bring a little private-sector innovation to the enterprise.

Now? Liberals are mad about budget cuts. Bob Herbert had at him in the Times, lamenting the lack of vision and invoking the specter of service cuts and transit-fare hikes. Conservatives are really mad about taxes, and about a mayor whose worldview they see as too Manhattan-centric, not mindful of the outer-borough voters who put him in office (Mark Green beat him in Manhattan). “He’s governing like an old-style liberal Democrat,” says Bill Stern, a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. And moderates see little of the aforementioned innovation—Fred Siegel, writing in the Sun, reproved him for having no imagination and says that the mayor, by hiking taxes without paring down the city payroll in a serious way, “doesn’t understand the rhythms of the city’s history.”

That’s pretty much the trifecta of scorn.

“Fred Siegel may not like to hear this, and the Manhattan Institute may not like to hear this,” thunders Bill Cunningham, the mayor’s spokesman, “but if they go and check their facts, they will see that Ronald Reagan raised taxes as governor of California two times, Margaret Thatcher raised taxes in 1980, and Fiorello La Guardia raised taxes in the thirties. So which icon do they want to point to?”

Not a bad return of serve. As I (and many people) argued last year, Bloomberg was going to have to raise taxes, and he put it off in the first year chiefly because he didn’t want to make any trouble for George Pataki while he was seeking reelection. So this, or some version of this, was inevitable, and if one has to raise taxes, Bloomberg has proposed doing so in ways that are mostly defensible. Single-family homeowners in the city do pay less, sometimes far less, than their counterparts in the ‘burbs, so a property-tax hike was kind of an obvious choice.

The other tax idea—reinstating the commuter tax and jacking it up to 2.7 percent from the old .45 percent, while at the same time lowering the city income tax from 3.65 percent to the same 2.7 percent that commuters would pay—is fair in theory. Of the 23 or so localities around the country that charge a tax on residents (some on income, others on wages) and on commuters, 14 of them do so at equal levels. The principle that commuters should pay at the same rate as residents is, then, well established across the country. But there’s a catch to this argument, and the catch, this being New York City, is just what you’d expect it to be: All of those 14 have rates that are a good deal lower. Portland, Oregon, for example, hits residents and commuters alike for .62 percent; Pittsburgh takes 1 percent; Columbus (Columbus?) gets 2 percent.

This brings us to what makes the fiscal hawks extend their talons: Portland, Pittsburgh, and Columbus don’t have 245,000 employees with nice benefit packages. And they’re right that Bloomberg has to do something substantial here. This one, to me, is the most glaring example: City employees, with a small number of exceptions, contribute no co-payment to their medical plans. The same goes for almost 200,000 retirees, meaning that, throwing in their family members, New York City foots virtually all the medical bills of nearly a million New Yorkers. Who in the private sector this side of Jack Welch has that deal, especially in these times? Forcing employees to make modest contributions, says Charles Brecher of the Citizens Budget Commission, would reap more than $500 million a year.

A tougher challenge—and, in Cunningham’s words, the “Holy Grail” – is the cost of Medicaid. The city will spend $4 billion next year on Medicaid. Bloomberg is going to push to have the state take over most of these costs. The state is busted, too, of course, but Bloomberg is looking to form an alliance with suburban and upstate counties, all of which have crippling Medicaid burdens. A governor surrounded by eight mayors and 45 or so county executives might not have much choice.

A heads-up: Medicaid might be the great Bloomberg-Pataki fight. If the mayor wins it and nothing else for the next three years, he will still have done a pretty amazing thing.

On both of those, union concessions and a Medicaid deal, he will have the support of editorial boards, watchdog groups, columnists, and various civic soothsayers. Getting them is possible. Neither will happen, though, if he doesn’t stop acting like the city manager and start acting like the mayor. He’s got one of America’s great bully pulpits, and he refuses to use it. “Bloomberg may be doing the right things on the job, but he’s not really explaining the job,” says political consultant Philip Friedman. “Bush is explaining all the time what he’s doing, whether he’s actually doing it or not. And that’s the difference between 65 and 41.”

Right: He’s out of focus right now; not commanding the stage. Another mayor might give a major address or two, even asking for television time, to lay out and explain his priorities and goals for a time of crisis, which this obviously is. Or at least have regular town-hall meetings out in the nabes. Bloomberg doesn’t do that either. Even his refusal to perform weddings, reported in the Daily News recently, is emblematic: He’s got a sense of the city as an amalgam of balance sheets and management reports, but not as the home of 8 million actual people.

That blank canvas that Mike Bloomberg was eleven months ago is being filled in, fast, by people who aren’t painting a very flattering portrait. Time he started filling it in himself.

Put On a Happy Face