Thursday, October 08, 2009

Termination Notice?

Steve Kornacki over at the Observer is, well, observing that Mike Bloomberg-a man with all of the advantages in the world-isn't doing as well as he should be, considering the lopsided amount of resources he's able to deploy: "Lest I be accused a month from now of having had my head buried in the sand while this turned into a real contest, let me state for the record: Bill Thompson could end up making this a much tighter affair than we think."

And the reason is? Why that old bugaboo term limits-and Kornacki sees this issue as compelling as the tax issue was in the 1990 New Jersey senate race where Christie Todd Whitman came within 55,000 votes of defeating the popular incumbent, Bill Bradley: "Thompson’s hope is that term limits will be the same under-the-radar phenomenon in 2009 New York that taxes were in 1990 New Jersey. It’s rare for a single issue to become so resonant, but the Bradley example shows that, when it does, it can cancel out just about all of the advantages enjoyed by an otherwise invulnerable incumbent."

But for this issue to be the fulcrum for a Bloomberg defeat, it's gonna have to be some fulcrum: "Historically speaking, the media is on fairly sturdy ground in doing this. Bloomberg retains very healthy personal popularity among voters (a 64 percent personal favorable score, in one recent poll), enjoys one of the most absurd financial advantages in political history, and has picked off numerous key figures from his opponent’s party. Moreover, that opponent, Thompson, is barely known to voters, has almost no money to define himself, and has inspired so little confidence among his fellow Democrats that President Obama—who has happily campaigned for the two other Democrats running in high-profile races this year—is refusing to lift a finger for him."

Yet, the race still appears to be tightening despite all of this lopsidedness, and aside from term limits, what else could be the underlying rationale? "A new Survey USA poll released on Tuesday showed Thompson within 8 points of the mayor, 51 to 43 percent. Let’s assume for the sake of this exercise that the poll isn’t the outlier it might well be. Given all of his advantages—and the media’s consistent willingness to dismiss Thompson—Bloomberg should be much farther ahead than this. No doubt the brutal economy is a factor. But it might be that term limits is a bigger explanation than is generally assumed; it would explain why voters who generally like the mayor and generally approve of his performance are keeping their distance. Remember, the fact that he’s not a Democrat (while most voters are) can’t really explain his numbers: Bloomberg also wasn’t a Democrat in 2005, but he led polls then by more than 30 points. Something else is at work this year."

But it's not the term limits thing acting as a completely discrete variable here: "He didn’t merely break a pledge—he threw his weight around to change the law, one that had twice been approved by voters. He’s spent his political career (successfully) fighting the idea that he’s just some rich, transactional plutocrat who thinks everything has a price. Against this backdrop, his term limits maneuvering is far more dangerous than simply going back on a promise. It invites emotional resentment from the public."

Precisely so-and what Bloomberg did here was to undermine his carefully crafted persona-and the manufactured narrative of the non-political problem solver who transcends the tawdriness of the quotidian political world. Once you undermine your own narrative, you invite skepticism about all aspects of your message. And when you add into this the current toxic economic climate, you have created a combustible mixture.

Now, as Kornacki does point out, there's millions of reasons why the potential fire in the hole can be doused by the little Bloomberg campaign engine. Still, there is something afoot here, and it is our experience that when the folks begin to view the bedrock identity of the leader as no longer admirable, it may well prove to be Humpty Dumpty time.