Populism Rises, Bloomberg’s “Centrism” Repudiated in NY Mayor’s Race

Richard Eskow

For 12 years now they’ve been touting New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a model for the politics of the future. Beltway pundits have pushed hard for his amalgam of economically conservative policies and social-issues liberalism.

They seized on Bloomberg’s mayoralty as a vindication of their vision. They were eager to tell us that us his winning candidacy was the harbinger of a new political trend.

They have yet to say the same about populist Bill de Blasio, who’s leading the polls to replace Bloomberg. And yet, it could be argued that de Blasio is already a more significant political bellwether than Bloomberg ever was.

The race isn’t over. But it’s beginning to look as if de Blasio, not Bloomberg, is the shape of things to come.

It Takes a Campaign of Millions to Hold Us Back

They sneered at “partisanship.” They told us that the ideal politician of tomorrow was a nonpartisan “technocrat” who ignored “ideology” – although they never told us who’d be pulling the levers in their new technocracy.

Pundits like Thomas Friedman and the late David S. Broder presented the corporate- and Wall Street-friendly Bloomberg as a shining example of their ideal, an unpopular right-leaning agenda which is frequently – and falsely – described as “centrism.”  They pointed to the Republican Bloomberg’s three mayoral victories in Democratic New York as confirmation of his agenda’s political strength. (How did he get past the city’s two-term limit? As my grandmother, who lived on West End and 103rd, used to say: Don’t ask.)

But Bloomberg’s races have never been especially good indicators of the national mood – or even, arguably, of New York City’s.  Bloomberg’s personal wealth allowed him to spend stratospheric amounts of money on his campaign, which meant his victories may have been nothing more than cash-driven anomalies.

How much cash are we talking about? The New York Times noted that expenditures for Bloomberg’s three mayoral campaigns were $74 million, $85 million, and $102 million, respectively.  That third figure comes to $185 per vote received (per the Times), or approximately $88 per vote cast.[1]

By contrast, total spending in the 2012 Presidential election – the most expensive in history – was roughly $46 per vote cast, roughly half of what Bloomberg spent.[2]

And yet, despite the spending, Bloomberg’s margin of victory was less than 5 percentage points. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for his patriarchal brand of corporate “centrism.”

New York, New York is a Hell of a Town

New Yorkers should be ready for a dose of populism right about now.  Official statistics show that half of New York City’s residents live at or near the poverty level, while the few who live at the other end of the scale are seeing their income soar to unprecedented heights.

And yet, Bloomberg was able to win relatively strong approval numbers from New York City’s population. He did it with a potpourri of policy positions that led de Blasio to observe: “On health and the environment, he is Franklin Roosevelt. On economic justice, he’s Adam Smith.” 

With great respect for Mr. de Blasio, that’s not exactly right. Adam Smith was far tougher on corporations than most of those claiming his legacy today. But the candidate’s point is well taken: Bloomberg was able to quell New Yorkers’ dissatisfaction with his pro-wealthy and pro-corporate economics by assuming liberal positions on lifestyle issues.

That’s a posture he shares with a number of Democratic politicians in the Clinton mold.

The New Populism

It could be argued that de Blasio’s rise in the polls is an anomaly, too. But there are good reasons to believe that his candidacy represents a broader trend.

First, de Blasio doesn’t have Bloomberg-style cash. His rise in the polls can be attributed to his message, not his money. And that message is heavily populist. De Blasio’s been emphasizing the wide income divide that characterizes Bloomberg’s New York City. A modest millionaire’s tax for early childhood education is a cornerstone of de Blasio’s campaign.

And de Blasio isn’t an outlier. He’s part of a broader political trend that resonates with voters. The Democrats, especially President Obama, leaned heavily toward Bloomberg-style “centrism” in 2010, and lost Congress. Spurred by the polls, and by the brief but transformative impact of the Occupy movement, the president and his party pivoted to populist themes in 2012 and won handily.

(What about Congress, you ask? Gerrymandering returned the Republican majority. But Democrats won the popular vote for Congress by well over a million votes.)

Populism Rising?

Americans voted for populism in 2012. Americans for Tax Fairness compiled polling data that showed that 60 percent of voters wanted the Bush tax cuts ended for income of $250,000 and above. They wanted Social Security and Medicare benefits protected. Voters also thought deficit shortfalls should be addressed by taxing the rich, an opinion they favored by 64 percent to 17 percent.

Nearly two-thirds of those polled said that “the message [they] were trying to send to the next president and Congress with [their] votes this year” was: “We should make sure the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes.”

That’s de Blasio’s message too. We seem to be seeing a trend developing which favors the politics of economic justice.

It’s true that Bloomberg was able to keep Gracie Mansion with massive campaign spending and a faux populism derived from his liberal social views. It’s also true that the Mayor’s race isn’t over. We could still see a massive infusion of campaign cash which affects the outcome. An unexpected revelation could shift the dynamics of the race. But Bloomberg’s brand of corporate centrism has already been resoundingly repudiated.

But we’ve already learned something very important from Bill de Blasio’s rise to the top of the polls, and the corresponding plunge of Bloomberg-style politician Christine Quinn. To paraphrase an old political adage: In a race between a “populist” and a populist, we may be learning that the populist wins every time.

FOOTNOTES:

[1]  To reach that figure we divided Bloomberg’s total spending from the number of votes cast.

[2]  We used the same methodology for the 2012 presidential election, using a higher-end spending estimate assembled by OpenSecrets.org.

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