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Will NYC's New Mayor Talk Left/Govern Right?

January 03, 2002|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail:

Remember all the talk of Bill Clinton running for mayor of New York City? That didn't happen, but someone a lot like the 42nd president just got sworn in as the 108th chief executive of the Big Apple. That would be Michael Bloomberg, who seems eager to follow in Clinton's New Democrat-ish path.

Obviously Bloomberg and Clinton have unalike personalities. But they share a basic pragmatism that leads them to look for middle-ground "third way" solutions.

Clinton, the original New Democrat, understood that it was the economy, stupid. As governor of Arkansas and then as president, he never let Old Democratic ideology about "social justice" get in the way of jobs and profits. But at the same time, he was loose and liberated about his own lifestyle and everyone else's. And he was shrewd about throwing low-cost bones to Old Democrats on such issues as affirmative action.

The result was eight years of what magicians call misdirection: Clinton's rhetoric was liberal, but the bottom line was conservative. Indeed, during his presidency, the federal government's share of the U.S. economy fell from 21% of gross domestic product to 18%.

Bloomberg may not be as adroit as Clinton but he seems determined to follow the same talk left/govern right model. His early mayoral appointments have tilted toward liberal Democrats. His inaugural ceremony Tuesday was an exercise in multiculturalism. And his actual address--emphasizing diversity, inclusiveness and partnership--was a distinct departure from the tough-talking, no-nonsensing "one city, one standard" style of Rudy Giuliani.

And yet Bloomberg has made it clear that his playing to the left will extend to talking and outreaching but not to taxing and spending. His pledge to cut his mayoral staff by 20% was a Clinton gimmick--the former president pledged to cut the White House staff by 25%--but his opposition to tax increases seems real enough.

Indeed, Bloomberg sounded almost Reaganesque when he said on the steps of City Hall: "We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past. We cannot drive people and business out of New York. We cannot raise taxes. We will find another way." Such anti-tax talk, of course, is a direct affront to the traditional liberalism of New York City. But it's a reflection of the new sense of reality; the city is vulnerable, not only to sudden terrorist attack but also to the slow hemorrhage of jobs and investment to lower-tax locales.

To be sure, Bloomberg did not plant his feet in anti-tax cement, as did former President George "read my lips, no new taxes" Bush. Jerry Skurnikof former Mayor Ed Koch's administration and now a Democratic consultant observes, "There are many ways to raise revenues without raising taxes--through fees, delaying previously enacted tax cuts, and so on."

Yet Skurnik takes the left-right mix of Bloomberg's policies seriously: "He's pretty liberal on social issues, but he is a businessman ....With New York City being especially hurt, he knows he has to compete with New Jersey, Connecticut and the rest of the country." In other words, Bloomberg's liberalism will likely to be confined to low-cost gestures.

But will it work for Mayor Bloomberg the way it worked for President Clinton?

Fred Siegel, a Brooklyn-based fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, was an early architect of Clinton's New Democratism. "But what happens ... " Siegel asks, when Bloomberg's "nice words aren't good enough anymore--when political claimants want real money?"

Clinton was fiscally tight but verbally loose. Talk may be cheap but the strategy worked--for two terms. Bloomberg lacks that natural gift of gab, but since schmooze is the only new currency he's likely to have, he'll have to learn to spread it far and wide.

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