Carpe Dems

In the days leading up to the election, I received some e-mails from a few readers who, broadly speaking, fell into the category of Democrats for Bloomberg. They were not, they assured me, quislings or disloyalists. One woman came from a family in which the occasion of her 16th birthday was marked by a gift from her father not of Abbey Road or Frampton Comes Alive! but of a subscription to The Nation – among other things, the magazine to which a frequent contributor over the years, alone among New York politicians, had been Mark Green.

My correspondents weren’t closet right-wingers. But they were persuaded that Mike Bloomberg’s independence from the local political infrastructure made him, as one put it, not “an excellent choice, just a better choice.” I wrote back to all of them: Didn’t the way these two men arrived at this point count for anything? One had done obviously impressive things in the private sector, but his involvement in the life of the city was largely built around the act of opening his checkbook. The other had graduated from Harvard Law in 1970 with good enough grades that he could have joined any white-shoe firm he’d chosen and contented himself with some nice pro bono work; instead, at considerable financial sacrifice, he spent 30 years fighting for the things – granted, sometimes unsuccessfully, sometimes artlessly – in which he believed.

I got exactly nowhere with this argument. At first, I confess, I was shocked. In the home in which I was raised, and in the milieu of friends and associates with whom I have surrounded myself now, this argument is virtually an automatic deal-closer. But my readers’ responses, and the election’s result, made me start thinking this through a little more deeply. When did $4 billion and no civic track record become better credentials – to Democrats! – than years of salaried public service spent aiming a sword at mobbed-up garbage carters and the tobacco lobby?

For all the talk about how September 11 transformed things, and it did, this change occurred long before then. Thirty years ago, or even ten, Green’s credentials would have defeated Bloomberg’s money. But in the past decade or so, the universe of people for whom this liberal ideal of public service would have made Green the better choice has contracted, and the vineyards in which Green has toiled have come to smell, to too many citizens, of rotten grapes. This has happened for some reasons that are the fault of Democrats, and some reasons that aren’t. But if the local Democratic Party is to pick up its thoroughly shattered pieces and move forward from here, it needs to understand and do something about them.

It was striking to me that the last full week of this mayoral campaign was the same week that anti-government rhetoric in Washington was on unprecedentedly frank display. Tom DeLay and his charges said quite openly that they were opposed to an airline-security bill, which no less a conservative than Jesse Helms had voted for in the Senate, because it would add 28,000 unionized employees to the federal workforce. The argument – by hook or by crook, but that’s politics – won the day.

Obviously, it would be absurd to say there’s a direct link between that legislation and Bloomberg’s victory. But there is, perhaps, a historical one. The DeLay position on that bill was just a more transparent version of an argument that has been the beating heart of national Republican ideology since Ronald Reagan’s victory 21 years ago: The less government, the better. Clearly, this argument hasn’t taken hold in New York City in the way it has in DeLay’s Texas, or in the fifteen other states Al Gore lost by landslide proportions last year. But so many people have been saying it with such ferocity for so long that, even here, the message has seeped in like gas through the crevices. Rudy Giuliani, in his 1993 campaign and in his governance, has offered a version of the argument tuned finely to a New York wavelength; his rhetoric about “old thinking,” and about actually feeling sorry for people stuck in some befogged, Marxian past, helped shift public perception dramatically. The old, reform-era default position for most New York Democrats was one of reflexive respect for a life spent in liberal politics. The new position is that of automatically looking askance at such a life.

Changes in the media over the past ten years have contributed to the shift as well. I think first and foremost of the cable-television screaming shows, on which a superficial, lunch-bucket populism (of millionaire hosts!) has become the guiding ethos. These shows have transformed the discourse – I would say disfigured it – into a language of emotionalism that denigrates qualities once associated with leadership and preparation for public life. In this lexicon, by far the worst sin is that of elitism, which is defined by three criteria: having gone to a fancy-pants university (Bloomberg has a Harvard MBA, just as W. went to Yale, but it somehow doesn’t count against Republicans, who are understood to have escaped Cambridge or New Haven without having been indoctrinated); being intelligent in a wonkish and admittedly sometimes proselytizing way; and, usually, espousing liberal politics. To meet those criteria, as Al Gore learned to his woe, is to be condemned as “out of touch” with the regular Joes. It was Gore, of course, who was for a higher minimum wage and for giving those Joes more generous prescription-drug benefits, but never mind.

In New York, the tabloids carry forward with that emotionalist-populist ethos, and the effect is to frame debate in a way that rewards the candidate who can connect with the voters’ visceral skepticism about public affairs. Bloomberg did this well – not on the stump, where he never did anything very well, but in his ads (fortunately for him, far more people saw the ads). The pseudo-populist response to his spending – “Hey, it’s his money” – ended up insulating him from a rigorous examination by the media of where, and I mean specifically into whose pockets, some of that money may have gone. Then, of course, there’s another face of New York journalism, which is populism’s antipode but which sits cheek-by-jowl with it in the pages of the very same newspapers – the cult of celebrity and wealth. Advantage, Bloomberg on this front as well; in many respects it’s no surprise at all that a mogulocracy should take root in the city that the richest and most powerful people in America call home.

Mark Green and his party are not responsible for any of the foregoing, but they are responsible for the way they have answered those shifts. And this, I think, is what my e-mailers were getting at.

Forget, for the moment, the improbable events of the past two months. Forget the World Trade Center, forget Bloomberg’s $50 million, forget Green’s inferior – and, at the end, quite dubious – ad campaign. Forget even the racial anthrax thrown into the election by Al Sharpton and Roberto Ramirez, about whom I will have a great deal to say in the near future. In those and other particulars, this campaign followed a script no one could have written.

But on another level, the campaign followed a script that any reasonably knowledgeable observer of city politics could have written with ease. Once again, the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer ended up a captive of the party’s constituent elements; once again, the party nominated a person who had respectably – I’d say more than respectably – paid his dues, at a historical moment when dues-paying strikes even many Democrats as tinkering under the hood of a car that hasn’t been roadworthy for years. Bloomberg’s perceived strength – and only time will tell whether it’s an actual strength – was exactly Green’s perceived weakness. In a word, management. In more than a word, it’s about giving voters the sense that new things will be tried, that risks will be taken, that entrenched interests will be shaken, and that time-servers and Mau-Mauers of various stripes will be told that the rules have changed.

That’s not easy to do. While recognizing that Green didn’t manage it, I nevertheless felt sympathy for him on that score. In part it’s a function of just how diverse and cantankerous this party is – Al Sharpton to Dov Hikind and everything in between. Impossible to keep peace in that jungle. I spoke to Green briefly off the record the Saturday before the vote, and again on Election Night when it still seemed he might win. I know exactly how hamstrung he felt, not only by Sharpton but also by the dozens of local sultans and suzerains playing out their infuriating, secret agendas.

If New York’s Democratic Party is going to recapture the loyalty of voters like my correspondents and return some nobility to the idea of public service, it’s going to have to do it by showing people that public service is producing a creative government that’s doing them some tangible good. Bill Clinton understood this on a national level. He embraced welfare reform and free trade and the death penalty, and attacked Sister Souljah, but he still had white liberals, blacks, and Latinos eating out of his hand. He defended, at crucial moments, the things that were really important; he basically kept alive the notions of activist government and public service while modifying them to adjust to the forces I cited above; and his political will was such that his party changed according to his designs.

Some of the things Clinton did, you simply couldn’t do in New York. But just as Giuliani tailored Reaganism to suit his circumstances, the Democrats need someone who can create a New York brand of Clintonism. There’s no heir apparent to that on the scene. Maybe Bill and Hillary can move to Sutton Place in time for the next election. Or maybe the Democrats, about whom I wrote essentially this same article during the mayoral debacle of 1997, can finally start figuring all this out.


Carpe Dems