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Dysfunctional Duo's undoing

Op-Ed

Michael Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger were deemed heroic for scrapping ideology to solve problems. But eschewing 'politics' for its own sake isn't necessarily courageous or wise.

January 04, 2011|Jonah Goldberg

"Unfortunately, partisan politics has immobilized Washington," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told Time magazine in 2007. Bloomberg, according to Michael Grunwald's cover story, was the diminutive half of a dynamic duo revolutionizing American politics. The other partner: California's then still shiny governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Together, they were "The New Action Heroes" who, according to Grunwald, were "doing big things that Washington has failed to do."

The article was mostly a clever way to slap George W. Bush. But there are still important lessons to be learned, particularly as the Big Apple remains immobilized not from partisan politics but by Bloomberg's arrogance. Hizzoner was more concerned with getting salt off of New Yorkers' plates than he was in getting it on the snow crippling their streets.

"The Governator," meanwhile, leaves California $28 billion in the hole, his former presidential ambitions an absurd joke and the state's GOP in tatters.

Both Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg were deemed heroic for abandoning ideology to focus on pragmatic problem-solving. Bloomberg has made this something of a crusade. He helped launch the laughingstock group No Labels, which seeks to get the "politics out of problem-solving."

But people disagree about how to solve problems, and they may disagree about what is a problem in the first place. In a democratic republic, we hash out these disagreements through this thing called "politics." Getting politics out of problem-solving is synonymous with getting democracy out of politics.

The same goes for ideology. If you agree with a solution, it doesn't seem ideological. But if you disagree with the proposed solution (or that there's a problem at all), the remedy might look very ideological indeed. Given Time's political agenda, it saw Schwarzenegger's decision to spend his political energies on the Global Warming Solutions Act as an exercise in "pragmatism."

This was ludicrous because California can no more do anything substantive about climate change than it can halt Iran's nuclear program.

In other words, even if you're on the climate change bandwagon, couldn't you say that the governor of the state with the nation's worst credit rating, a budget crisis more unbelievable than the plot of "Twins," a cratering manufacturing base and famously dysfunctional schools was making an ideologically blinkered decision to make global warming a priority, particularly given that the benefits of the law for California — and the world — will be somewhere between symbolic and trivial, while the costs will probably be huge?

Meanwhile, Bloomberg, who before snowmageddon reportedly took seriously the idea of being carried to the Oval Office by a groundswell of support from Americans who don't believe in labels, thinks it's not ideological to dedicate much of his mayoralty to fighting global warming by clogging the streets with bike lanes and hybrid taxis.

The point isn't to argue with every one of the Dysfunctional Duo's decisions or priorities. They didn't get everything wrong, and things in NYC and California might have been even worse with different men at the helms. The point is that ideology is in the eye of the beholder and that pursuing nonpartisanship for its own sake isn't necessarily courageous or wise. Sometimes what seems visionary to Time magazine is nothing more than craven fad-following.

It is true that some serious problems are fairly free of partisan wrangling. But that doesn't mean they are free of politics. It means that there is such an overwhelming political consensus that nobody disputes what should be done (even if they might fight over how or how much to pay for it). We all agree, for example, that firefighters should fight fires and that police should fight crime.

Oh, and New Yorkers believe that one of the mayor's top responsibilities is to make sure the snow is cleared so ambulances can reach those in need and so everyone can get to work. Mayors who spend more energy fighting "labels" in our politics than clearing the snow are rewarded with some labels too colorful for a family newspaper. But "ideologue" works as a substitute.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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