Thursday, September 29, 2005

Greg Sargent Responds to Fred Kaplan

The following is a comment sent in by New York Magazine reporter Greg Sargent that we decided to post:

I'd like to add a few points to Richard Lipsky's critique of Fred Kaplan's recent piece about the New York mayoral election in the American Prospect.

In taking issue with my earlier piece arguing that liberal Dems should feel conflicted about voting for Mike Bloomberg, Kaplan offers a single central assertion: Bloomberg will win re-election simply because the local Democratic Party is run by "second-raters" and "hacks." The Democrats can’t win because they “don't exude” an "air of basic competence."

Kaplan probably isn't aware of this, but every four years, hack pundits repeat the same cliche he's peddling: they blithely dismiss virtually any and all mayoral aspirants as hopelessly unworthy of the office.

Is this solely because of the quality of the challengers themselves? No -- it's actually more a function of the New York City media market. The 24-hour news cycle, the fact that the mayor's every utterance often frames the news of the day, and endless on-the-scene coverage of mayors during crises all inevitably inflate the post of mayor -- and its occupant -- into something larger-than-life and omnipresent in the consciousness of New Yorkers. Thus it is that would-be mayors almost inevitably are seen as failing to measure up. Consider some of the people political prognosticators confidently derided as lacking either the stature, gravity or temperament to be mayor: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and ... Mike Bloomberg.

Kaplan further writes that the Dems’ travails stem from “this city’s Democratic Party machine -- it’s insularity, its decrepitude, and, worst of all, its compulsive self-destructiveness,” adding that if they want to win again, “Dems have to start fielding candidates capable of” This is admirable prose, but it betrays an astonishing ignorance of recent history. There hasn’t been a Democratic machine in New York in any meaningful sense in at least a generation; the notion is as anachronistic as Brooklyn stickball and wisecracking cabbies in fedoras. Kaplan's just recycling another tired cliche, one that, as it happens, carries strong echoes of Bloomberg's campaign lit: that elected officials are somehow rendered unworthy by the fact that they worked their way up through local party ranks.

Indeed, Mark Green, whatever his failings, certainly wasn’t a “machine” pol; nor could he have been dismissed as a “hack” or a “second-rater.” Bloomberg beat him not because the electorate doesn’t “trust” Democrats, but because of an extraordinary confluence of circumstances. First, because he won the endorsement of Giuliani, who by then had been so deified by the media after Sept. 11 that you could practically see his halo; and second, because Bloomberg spent $70 million on TV ads showcasing Rudy’s support and inflating Green's negatives. Something similar, of course, is about to happen again: Fernando Ferrer is going to be outspent by as much as ten to one by Bloomberg, all but insuring the mayor's reelection.

That Bloomberg is about to spend $100 million on reelection apparently doesn't trouble Kaplan at all. Even a fair comparison between the two men, he'd likely argue, proves that Bloomberg is superior, so who cares what the mayor does to win? But we should care. The enormous imbalance in resources between the two candidates is bad for the city. It means the electorate, bombarded by TV ads, will be less capable of giving the challenger a fair hearing, which will mean less serious scrutiny of Bloomberg's failings. That in turn makes it less likely that he'll correct them in his expected second term.

It's unclear, of course, whether Kaplan even thinks Bloomberg has any failings. Most voters, he writes, want "a competent manager who protects the city's people and treats them fairly." Actually, plenty of voters want a good deal more than that. They want a mayor who will seriously tackle poverty; who will pursue real government reforms such as seriously dealing with Medicaid; who won’t render the city’s campaign finance program meaningless with enormous campaign expenditures; and who won't try to build taxpayer-subsidized stadiums in the city's richest borough. What's more, a fair number of New Yorkers aren’t so sure they’ve been treated “fairly.” Bloomberg got the city through the fiscal crisis largely with higher property taxes that disproportionately gouged outerborough homeowners of all ethnicities. Small businesses have been deluged by tickets. These things may not matter much to the well-heeled Manhattan liberals who now comprise Bloomberg’s base, but that doesn’t mean we should politely ignore uncomfortable facts about his performance.

Finally, Kaplan argues that Bloomberg is not "a Republican by the national party's standards." He's right. And no, Bloomberg probably isn't a "real Republican" in his heart of hearts. But those points are utterly irrelevant. The only question that matters is, Does Bloomberg being a Republican have consequences for the rest of us?

The answer is Yes. It's meant that New York has lacked a strong critical voice against the national GOP while it stiffs New York on homeland security money and continues to politicize Sept. 11. It's meant he's raised millions raised for Bush and many other GOPers. And it helps the national GOP advance its cause, because it allows it to argue (falsely) that its ideology is triumphing in hostile territory. These are more than mere abstractions or partisan flag-waving; they can have a real impact on our city and on our lives.

Does all this automatically merit a vote against Bloomberg? No, not necessarily. Kaplan mischaracterized the earlier Prospect piece as a "plea" for Ferrer. In fact, the intention was not to argue that liberal Dems should automatically support Ferrer, but that they should feel conflicted about supporting Bloomberg -- that they have a "dilemma" on their hands. After all, the previous piece argued extensively that Bloomberg has in many ways been a highly successful Mayor. But his Republicanism, however superficial or insincere, does matter -- and it deserves to be factored into every liberal Democrat's deliberations.

--Greg Sargent