The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
New York’s Incredible Shrinking Mayor

New York has rarely needed strong leadership more than it does now; unfortunately, our Mayor keeps shrinking.

What would the world have thought of Mayor Nagin if he’d diverted resources from Katrina relief efforts to holding a Mardi Gras parade? Mayor Bloomberg may be about to find out. As the NYT reports, the Mayor has vowed to go ahead with the NYC marathon, which will inevitably draw resources away from the Sandy recovery and irritate people whose homes are still underwater, who still don’t have food or power, and who need help, not a sport to watch. Widespread reports that generators are being diverted to power tents for race officials are stoking a populist rage that a billionaire mayor doesn’t need.

Non-New Yorkers don’t follow these things closely, but Mayor Bloomberg’s standing in the city has never recovered from his ill-starred decision to run for a third term. The mayor’s signature accomplishment had been the imposition of term limits on the self serving, often corrupt career pols who entrenched themselves and their patronage networks at the public trough. New Yorkers were thrilled at this blow to their dysfunctional political class and widely celebrated the courage and determination of a reforming mayor who took on and beat the city bosses.

Alas, that Michael Bloomberg didn’t last. The Mayor decided to run for a third term, but he was caught by his own term limits. The hacks on the City Council made clear that they wouldn’t give him an exemption from term limits unless the limits were lifted for everybody else. Disgracefully, Bloomberg took the deal and helped the corrupt political class destroy his greatest achievement.

Bloomberg didn’t sell out the cause of reform just to extend his lease on Gracie Mansion. He had bigger fish to fry. Many mayors of New York have hoped to move on to the national stage; for Mayor Bloomberg, the White House glimmered tantalizingly in the distance. Consultants were engaged, pollsters turned loose; experts and lawyers crafted the mechanics of a third party run and mapped out the pathway to get on the ballots of the fifty states.

A socially liberal independent with a demonstrated ability to win Democratic support; a successful businessman with deep pockets and the ability to raise money on Wall Street; a third party candidate at a time when American disenchantment with both of the traditional parties had peaked: Michael Bloomberg was a smoother, smarter Ross Perot.

But the dream died. The pollsters and consultants trolled the nation looking for support for a Bloomberg presidency; they couldn’t find any.

Meanwhile, the Mayor’s authority and image in New York never recovered from the public revulsion at his cynical third term move. He just barely scraped back into office; had the Democrats run a strong candidate against him he would almost certainly have lost.

The third term saw the Mayor struggle for a theme. His issues grew smaller and smaller: saturated fats, Big Gulp sodas—did Bloomberg really think it was worth wrecking term limits to campaign for these things? The air leaked out of his national political ambitions and the city waited patiently for his tenure to end.

Stale mayors are a New York cliche; our mayors often stay in Gracie Mansion after their sell-by dates. The city was desperately tired of Rudy Giuliani as the end of his last mandate approached—until 9/11 brought him a chance for redemption. Giuliani was a dynamo in those terrible days and left office on a high note—high enough that for a while Giuliani looked like a potential Republican presidential nominee.

Michael Bloomberg must have hoped that Sandy would be his own 9/11. A population in shock turned to the mayor in their hour of need. He dominated the airwaves; he issued decrees. He seized the occasion to speak out on the big issues: climate change, endorsing a president. He worked to project an air of authority and calm: the Marathon would go on.

It must have looked for a while as if he had done a Rudy and resuscitated a tired mayoralty, relaunching a national career. Perhaps a cabinet appointment in a second Obama administration, perhaps another shot at an independent presidential campaign.

It is looking less that way by the hour. As the true dimensions of the damage in New York gradually appear, as the death toll mounts and as chaos at the gas stations and devastation in Staten Island undercut the narrative that the city has responded effectively to the challenge, Mayor Bloomberg looks more like the hapless officials of New Orleans than Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie. The decision to divert badly needed resources to the Marathon looks callow. Big talk about climate change fails to impress; surely if the Mayor was so concerned about climate change he could have invested more time in flood preparations. It’s not the fault of conservative GOP climate skeptics that New York did so little to prepare for the rising sea levels that so trouble the mayor.

The gods of politics are fickle and the winds blowing so hard against Mayor Bloomberg could veer. But he needs to move quickly; New York’s post-Sandy narrative threatens to turn ugly, and nobody loves a scapegoat more than a New Yorker with no gas and no power. A billionaire who thinks a marathon is more important than the well being of middle class homeowners on Staten Island: if that label sticks to Michael Bloomberg, his decision to go for a third term as mayor will go down as one of the classic political blunders in the storied history of New York.

UPDATE 5:25 PM: Under increasing fire from angry citizens and the media, the Mayor has canceled the marathon.

 

Published on November 2, 2012 9:30 am