Monday, October 03, 2005

"Bloomberg's City"

James Traub, who still gets props in our mind for his masterful "City on a Hill" analysis of the plight of City College, takes an interesting look at the four year tenure of Mayor Mike Bloomberg. In the process he manages to make a number of observations that are useful jump-points for a discussion of the state of NYC politics.

Of course anyone who can describe the mayor as the "master of the nonevent", and "rhetorically disabled" was bound to get our full attention. What's really interesting here, however, is Traub's description of the mayor as a non-ideological manager and technocrat. He sees this as a welcome cooling off from the hyper-emotional reign of his predecessor. And maybe it is. As Traub relates, "Even people who welcomed the Giuliani blunderbuss had come to find his tenure exhausting."

This kind of analysis misses an important point. Giuliani’s force majeure personality was part of a political worldview. In combination it had a powerful impact on the political culture of this city. It is not likely that the crime and welfare policies that Giuliani pursued could have been successfully implemented without the drama that the former mayor brought to the political scene. In fact his success is precisely what allows Bloomberg to govern in his faux technocratic fashion.

Education is a case in point. Traub argues that "Bloomberg also succeeded where his predecessor failed by persuading state legislators to grant him full control over the city's vast and refractory school system." Exactly right, but this skirts the underlying truth that without Giuliani’s eight years of incessant hectoring against a failed educational bureaucracy Mike Bloomberg wouldn't have gotten to first base on this issue. According to those who know Shelly Silver, it is clear that the Speaker was also prepared to cede control to Mark Green if he were elected.

In addition, Traub only alludes to the mayor's knee jerk progressive education initiatives that were only jettisoned when the unlamented Diane Lam was herself sent packing after a brief attempt at nepotism (Which Andrew Wolf has chronicled in the NY Sun). In this we can see the wisdom of Fred Siegel’s description of Bloomberg as a "liberal paternalist." There is also strong reason to question how much the mayor has actually continued the Giuliani approach to welfare reform.

On a larger front, however, the short comings in Traub's evaluation of Bloomberg devolve from his juxtaposition of ideology and managerial competence. Borrowing from Max Weber, it is essential to understand that charisma is a necessary component of political change, particularly when faced with a hidebound political culture and its bureaucratic co-conspirators.

Here we believe that Siegel is right and Traub wrong. Siegel correctly sees the Bloomberg backsliding for what it is: a surrender to New York's paternalistic liberal culture. As a result, to call, as Traub does, the Siegel accusation "hyperbolic" is off the mark. The only thing that remains from the Guliani tenure is a crime prevention policy that Bloomberg frankly wouldn't dare even try to reverse.

The key issue that underscores this argument is the Bloomberg response to the city's budget deficit in 2002. As Traub points out, the Guiliani response to towering deficits was to argue that a bloated city bureaucracy was the culprit and the former mayor proceeded to chop it down to size, "enraging traditional liberals and public employee unions."

Bloomberg, starkly diverting from the Giuliani playbook, raised taxes to record levels. Traub nicely captures the Bloomberg mindset here when he recalls the mayor's smug remark that New York was a "luxury good" for which New Yorkers are willing to pay a premium. Who was Mike speaking of here? Mike's response to the bodega owners complaining about a record increase in the cigarette tax is also worth repeating: "It's a minor economic issue."

Giuliani, even though we had major battles with him, did use his unique blend of acerbic personality and ideological passion to reshape the city's political culture. Bloomberg's mainstream liberalism, as well as his dispassionate technocratic style and personality, do threaten to reestablish the very same political worldview that necessitated the Giuliani whirlwind in the first place.

New York City's government is badly in need of reinvention. A sclerotic bureaucracy and an unmanageable tax burden will be seriously challenged if we are facing the $4.5 billion deficit that is predicted for 2006. As Traub points out, "Bloomberg has yet to explain how he will whittle down that sum without resorting to new taxes". Bloombergism, then, is a recrudescence, an unfortunate reversion to the mind set of Robert Wagner. It's exactly what got this city in its original political mess.

Precisely the point. The next budget crisis will demand an innovative approach that Mike Bloomberg is unlikely to be able to muster, not when he is imbued with the kind of ideological blinders that views government as inherently benevolent. This is the cutting edge evaluation that eludes Traub.

The "master of the nonevent" is a stylistic distraction from a proper framework for political analysis. An emphasis on the Giuliani abrasiveness misses the substance of his critique and subsequent reform efforts. The real question here is, Can meaningful change be accomplished without aggressive ideological bombast in NYC when a smug, self-righteous and change-resistant political and cultural elite resists it at every turn?


Another story written in the magazine section by Sam Tennenhaus should be read as a companion to the Traub piece. The article is about Bill Buckley's quixotic mayoral run in 1965. The point to be made here is that Tennenhaus adroitly shows how Ed Koch and Rudy Guiliani, admittedly in less ideological tones, are the heirs to Buckley's challenge to NYC's liberal orthodoxy.

Their success, as Buckley's, was a direct result of the fact that serious defects were exposed in a world view that the liberal establishment had been able to promulgate unchallenged. It is precisely a view that Mike Bloomberg, unreflective and without any real policy expertise, clings to.