Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Money Bet

So now we can get busy with the real mayoral race-or, can we? Bill Thompson has one the Democratic nomination a yawner that most party members avoided yesterday-and it will be a real challenge for the comptroller to take the fight to Mike Bloomberg, and beat him, But, as the NY Times reports, he is not without some advantages: "Here is the Michael R. Bloomberg that his Democratic rival wants you to see: a power-hungry politician who broke his promise not to seek a third term; an insensitive billionaire who raised taxes on the middle class; an overrated manager who failed to accomplish anything big in his second term."

The problem. however, lies with the lack of money Thompson has raised to get their message across, And, despite what Dan Gerstein tells us in yesterday's, NY Daily News, money does matter: "To rationalize this sorry situation, presumptive nominee Bill Thompson and his defenders have come up with about 36 million excuses. That is the amount of cash Bloomberg has spent (as of the last filing) to win a third term, a total that will likely double by November. That bankroll, we're told, gives the mayor such an unfair edge that no Democrat could effectively compete against him."

Not so, says the Democratic turned sycophant Gerstein: "This line may hold comfort for partisans, but it doesn't hold water. If you know anything about how campaigns work, Thompson's more money myth falls apart quicker than his campaign has. Start with the dubious assumption this argument is premised on - that money is the decisive factor in electoral campaigns. There is no doubt that money matters. But history is littered with candidates who massively outspent their opponents only to get outgunned at the polls."

Massive disadvantages elsewhere, doesn't do justice to the disparities operating in the NYC mayoral race-or to the fact that the Bloomberg presence has dried up the usual sources of campaign funds that are relied upon by Democrats in this city-since the giving cohort can be seen as charter members of the Bloomberg fan club. The rich, and those who normally look for aggrandizement from government, are all gonna sit out the Thompson's effort; and the outspending Bloomberg's cash will be overwhelming any Thompson media message.

That being said, Gerstein has a point about the Thompson opportunity: "That same poll showed the mayor with a commanding 50%-to-35% lead over Thompson. But it bears noting that Bloomberg's reelect number is 10 points lower than his job approval rating. This indicates that Hizzoner has serious liabilities, ripe to be exploited. Chief among them: a fairly broad sense among middle-class voters that he's arrogant and out of touch, which was reinforced by the damaging term limits fight. If Thompson were a skilled candidate and offered a compelling counternarrative and agenda, he could have seized on Bloomberg's vulnerabilities and made the race competitive."

And the incessant ads are in fact a turnoff: "In fact, the most recent Quinnipiac poll suggests Bloomberg's ad avalanche may be doing as much harm as good: 47% said they found all his efforts annoying, and 57% said they amounted to overkill."

But Thompson does need to capitalize on the Bloomberg vulnerabilities-weaknesses that acolyte Gershman can see clearly. As the Times tells us: "Wednesday is the first day of the general election campaign for mayor, but the outline of each side’s message is already emerging. And this much is clear: The race will be combative. It will be expensive. And it will be personal.
“The incumbent Republican mayor defends Wall Street executives, the rich and developers,” begins a new radio advertisement from Mr. Thompson’s campaign."

The Bloomberg retort: politics as usual-with the mayor droning from script at last night's gathering for the Bloombergistas. But nothing could be more politics as usual than the mayor's usurpation of the popular will with his term limits power grab. Nothing independent about that old school arrogance. And the effort by Bloomberg to respond to allegations of out of touchness ring hollow to our ears: "At every possible turn, Mr. Thompson will attack Mr. Bloomberg for what Mr. Castell described as “broken promises” and “for playing by a different set of rules.” He will critique his record on homelessness, his autocratic approach to the schools and his tax increases. “Life in this city has become more expensive, not less,” Mr. Castell said. He will deride Mr. Bloomberg as a Republican, even though the mayor is a registered independent, because he is running on the Republican ballot line."

The Bloomberg campaign will counter with an attack on the Thompson record-and Gerstein's observation will likely be a theme: "This might explain why, even though I follow the race more closely than the average voter, I can't name a single accomplishment of Thompson's seven years as controller or one good policy idea he has that speaks to Bloomberg's shortcomings." How many times has a comptroller, given the nature of the job, been able to point to his record? Alan Hevesi had the same problem eight years ago.

And then there is the schools issue. Here's the Times: "Mr. Bloomberg’s aides have already started to mock Mr. Thompson’s record as the president of the Board of Education, and as comptroller, suggesting he is a creature of the political machine." But here the mayor better tread softly-as more and more stuff emerges about how shallow the educational record Bloomberg is touting really is.

But what's missing from Gerstein's critique-and his admonition about Thompson's so far lack luster efforts is fair up to a point-is how the Bloomberg money machine has laundered cash throughout the political system for over seven years-suborning quite a few, while intimidating even more folks. Just look at the "independent" local newspaper endorsements for a small clue. Incumbency, combined with a cash avalanche employed in astro turf fashion, is a formidable opponent. The fact that the race is as close as it is, attests to the mayor's vulnerabilities.

So, we will see if Thompson can fire up and exploit these weaknesses. And Gerstein misses the boat when he tells us: "It's the city, though, that is the poorer for Thompson's poor excuse for a campaign, and I say that as someone who supports the mayor's reelection. Beyond being denied a serious debate about our future, New Yorkers are losing our last big bit of leverage to keep the mayor on his toes. That's something no amount of money can buy - and that my fellow Democrats should have thought of before picking their nominee."

If we have been denied a serious debate-and the jury is still out about that-it's because of the power of money to intimidate potential opposition-leaving Thompson standing alone just about. Not to mention a supine cohort of editorialists who are even more sycophantic than Jacob's ladder to fame and fortune.

The next few weeks will tell if Thompson can craft the kind of resonating narrative that will throw the Bloomberg campaign off its game and make this contest a real race. There is quite a lot to exploit, but the clock is running and Bloomberg's three corner offense is looking to stall things so time runs out before Thompson can really gear up.