If the presidential candidacy of Mayor de Blasio has any hope (and it does not), it is because Americans have stopped looking for leadership and started looking for mascots.
Dopey Twitter war with Eric Trump? Half-understood and half-serious “Green New Deal” promises? That is what modern presidential campaigns are made of.
De Blasio, with his socialist enthusiasms (“there’s a socialistic impulse in every kind of community,” he says, and the main barrier to progress is that we “have elevated property rights”) his quondam militant lesbian wife (“I Am a Lesbian,” Chirlane McCray, Essence, September 1979), his biracial children campaigning to assure voters that dad is not “some boring white guy,” his Park Slope address, etc., is perfectly emblematic of a certain brand of urban-lifestyle liberalism — Bernie Sanders as reimagined by Benetton.
Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren, de Blasio has learned how to flatter the prejudices of his voters, inflame their sense of grievance and offer himself as their tribune.
“Here’s the truth, brothers and sisters,” he says. “There’s plenty of money in the world, plenty of money in this city. It’s just in the wrong hands!” That is a straightforward appeal — the politics of Us and Them: We will take what they have for ourselves.
Warren takes the same tack, identifying the enemy as “right-wing loudmouths,” bankers and Walmart. For Ocasio-Cortez, the enemy of the people is “a ruling class of corporations and a very small elite that have captured government.” Trump’s mere presence in the Oval Office, she says, is a “defilement.”
The American presidency is no longer the chief executive office in the federal government; it is first prize in the endless, vicious tug-o’-war of identity politics. The president is the personification of which team is, for the moment, on top. The other side must feel itself to be “defiled.”
The dynamic that currently animates our politics sometimes is described dismissively as “virtue signaling,” but a more accurate description is “conspicuous consumption.” A candidate comes with a bundle of issues, of course, but he also comes with a brand that is related to those issues only obliquely.
Progressives did not flock to Barack Obama in 2008 because of his views on same-sex marriage (which placed him at the time well to the right of Dick Cheney) or to Donald Trump in 2016 because of his position on gun control (which has been all over the place, like most of his positions) but because affiliating with one of those candidates says something about the kind of person you imagine yourself to be and the kind of life you aspire to enjoy.
A BMW 7 Series sedan and a top-of-the-line Ford Super Duty pickup cost about the same, but they speak to profoundly different lives and aspirations. The same thing is true of presidential candidates.
This is not Right vs. Left: It is Coke vs. Pepsi: “New, improved Warren Wilhelm Jr. — now with a third more socialism!”
Bill de Blasio is a man who lives in Brooklyn and belongs to a political party full of people who live in Brooklyn, who aspire to live in Brooklyn or who live in places that are a lot like Brooklyn. (The parts of Brooklyn where the fashionable white people are, of course: Smith Street, not Sheepshead Bay.) Hillary Clinton put her campaign HQ in Brooklyn for a reason.
De Blasio’s public career as mayor has been oriented not toward pursuing and promoting a certain set of policies but at cultivating and communicating certain cultural class markers that distinguish the cool kids in Brooklyn from the clods out there in Tulsa or Midland or wherever. His Froot-Loop Sandinista jabberwocky, his irresponsible Jacobinism and dopey culture-war affectations, his instinct for maximizing polarization — these are what he has instead of a plausible policy agenda.
This is not Right vs. Left: It is Coke vs. Pepsi
“Put me in the White House, and I’ll do for America what I have done for New York!” would be almost useless as a slogan. Eric Trump and other de Blasio critics may sometimes make too much of the city’s troubles on his watch, but New York has not exactly thrived in that time, either. There is a reason the city is losing population again: From the subways to the schools, the de Blasio years offer a chronicle of missed opportunities and mild incompetence.
In that, he suffers by comparison to Michael Bloomberg, that “boring white guy” who, in the course of a run that began right after 9/11 and extended through the financial crisis, saw crime, incarceration and poverty go down. Bloomberg’s sin is that he governed with an unsentimental and realistic approach — which is, apparently, the very last thing voters want.
Which is why he is not the New York mayor Democrats are taking a look at.
Voters tell pollsters they want bipartisanship, problem-solving, moderation and an unswerving focus on kitchen-table issues, but that is a lie — a case of expressed preferences at odds with revealed preferences. Nobody will vote for Bill de Blasio because they think he is a good mayor — running New York City’s government is his part-time job. His full-time job is being a left-wing mascot. And that is the whole of his appeal, such as it is.
What de Blasio has is not leadership, just the box it came in.
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