Artur Davis: The Tale of New York

A few takeaways from Bill de Blasio’s apparent victory in New York’s Democratic mayoral primary:

(1) If the New York Times’ insider account of his strategy is accurate (and not just post victory spin by consultants) de Blasio deserves a substantial amount of strategic credit for running against the grain of initial polling as well as conventional wisdom. Six months ago, the best empirical and anecdotal evidence was that New Yorkers were generally contented with the city’s direction, and preferred a successor that offered a continuation of Michael Bloomberg’s policy tilt, albeit in a less autocratic, more compassionate style. It turns out that had de Blasio heeded that mindset rather than challenging it, his candidacy would likely have suffered from the thematic muddle that damaged Christine Quinn’s and Bill Thompson’s efforts.

That is no small nod to de Blasio, given that most campaigns become prisoners of their own data and the temptation to craft a message broad enough to leave virtually every sector of the electorate (and the universe of endorsers) in play. And in making a bold play for a silent, but disgruntled majority, de Blasio enabled himself to benefit from an emergent shallowness in Bloomberg’s popularity: once the voice of opposition to Bloomberg became an unabashed liberal (and the ad featuring that candidate’s polished, appealing son) as opposed to Fox-loving critics of soda bans and the National Rifle Association, the mayor’s approval ratings bled, and his putative heir, Quinn, collapsed. (for a similarly adept Republican example of tossing conventional wisdom aside, see Bobby Jindal’s 2003 race for Governor of Louisiana, when an obscure, thirty-something Indian policy wonk opted to run on a comprehensive ethics platform when polls described the state’s tepid economy and the wounded petroleum industry as the major voter concerns. Jindal lost in 03, but his 48 percent showing tagged him as a fresh figure who became the presumptive favorite four years later.

davis_artur-11(2) Bill Thompson’s inability to mobilize the African American vote, which had he dominated it, would have put him and de Blasio in a dead heat, is even more surprising than it seems on first glance. Unlike, say, my own 2010 race as a right of center Democrat, Thompson’s campaign was a conventionally liberal affair that, post primary rationalizations aside, actually spent considerable energy and advertising on assailing New York’s stop and frisk laws. To be sure, there was a lawyerly, nuanced bent to the substance of Thompson’s arguments—more thorough supervision versus an outright repeal—but it is unlikely that Thompson’s increasingly personal and forceful denunciations of the controversial tactic did not register on the city’s African American electorate. Nor did Thompson, by the way, reap much benefit from his support from one of New York’s influential and minority dominated teacher unions.

It’s fair to ask whether, as the Times’ Gail Collins speculates, Thompson was simply undone by the imagery of de Blasio’s biracial family and its idealization of a social reality that is becoming simultaneously conventional and exciting for a generation of Americans and New Yorkers. On a more cynical note, however, it was Thompson, the first credible black mayoral contender in 20 years, and not de Blasio’s children or wife, who was on the ballot, and it’s intriguing to wonder whether post Obama, the shattering of racial glass ceilings is simply no longer a resonant force for a number of black voters.

(3) For all of de Blasio’s strategic savvy, and the role identity politics played in his rise, the fact is that his victory is a reflection of the trend in intra-party fights in the hyper-partisan Obama error: with extremely rare exceptions, in races with a relative parity in terms of funding and name identification, it is the most plausible unabashed liberal who usually wins Democratic primaries, and the most plausible unabashed conservative who tends to win Republican primaries. The balance of pro business sensibilities with social justice convictions that Thompson and Quinn aimed for was no more effective than, say, Dave Dewhurst’s or Trey Grayson’s blend of conservative bona fides with a reputation for bipartisan alliance building proved to be against Ted Cruz or Rand Paul; and there are dozens of examples easily culled on both sides from Alaska to Florida, from Indiana to Colorado. It is also jarring to hear the continuities between de Blasio’s rifts on the campaign trail about the boldness required to forge a liberal vision and Ted Cruz’s jeremiads about the need for stronger conservative willpower.

(4) The intensified focus on class inequality that de Blasio railed against is probably the same space that any insurgent Democratic presidential contender will seize upon in 2016. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which Obama’s record will look Bloomberg like: an unmistakable shift left on social issues but a less dramatic record of populist advances. From the AFL-CIO’s (belated) rumblings about the toll Obamacare is taking on high value union health plans, to the persistence of rampant income disparity, to the tension between record corporate profits and stagnant wages, to the abandoned campaign to undo Citizens United and diminish the sway of big donors in elections, there is room to portray the Obama presidency as an unfinished agenda at best, a squandered opportunity at worst.

As always, there was blind luck: a trial in Florida added emotional weight to a candidate who actually did have a son who looked like Trayvon Martin. And my guess is that after a season of hard bargaining with public employee unions, and after some of his more quixotic and unsustainable ventures have been quashed, de Blasio will look less compelling to his newly crystallized fan club. But today, he looks like a pretty revealing template for his party’s short-term future.


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