New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a set of national policy proposals on Tuesday, May 12—including a $15 an hour minimum wage and universal pre-K—that he is calling a liberal version of Newt Gringrich’s Contract With America, the declaration of war on working class America that emboldened Republicans in 1994 on the way to their election victory and the so-called Republican Revolution.
The announcement in Washington, D.C., is just the latest of de Blasio’s many trips across the country in his attempt to rally the left wing of the Democratic Party—and promote himself as its leader.
Not surprisingly, back at home, the New York City tabloids—billionaire-owned newspapers that love to stoke populist anger against liberal politicians—have been griping that de Blasio thinks he’s already too big for the biggest city in the country, after just a year in office.
On this particular issue, they have a point. There is something a little Obama-winning-the-Nobel-Peace-Prize-just-for-getting-elected about de Blasio championing himself as a national left wing leader when his list of accomplishments in New York City is not very long at this point. Here are the highlights of de Blasio’s record after 16 months as mayor:
— He famously won the creation of universal pre-K in New York City schools, though it should be noted that this already exists in such left-wing hotbeds as Oklahoma and Florida. But de Blasio gave up the fight against the expansion of charter schools in the face of pressure from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. More recently, he betrayed his campaign rhetoric against over-testing by staying silent while his schools chief instructed principals to discourage parents from opting out of the state tests.
— He has taken credit for the reduction in stop-and-frisks—though the downward trend was already happening under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the face of growing protests and multiplying court orders. But de Blasio chose the leading proponent of the aggressive “Broken Windows” policing policy to head the NYPD, and he has responded to the outrageous police union slowdown by giving in to the cops’ demand that he start cracking protesters’ heads.
— He announced a seemingly ambitious plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing—but neglected to mention that his definition of affordable housing costs is $2,800 a month.
— He passed a law guaranteeing sick days to all New York City workers. But de Blasio hasn’t punished businesses who break the law, choosing instead to trust that owners will do the right thing once they’ve been “educated” about the new law.
Based on his resume as mayor up to this point, de Blasio’s blueprint for renewing the Democratic Party is to talk loudly to the media about bold initiatives that will reduce inequality—while making quiet concessions to the rich and powerful that render those initiatives almost useless.
But that’s already the Democrats’ standard operating procedure.
Supporters of Bill De Blasio claim the mayor is cleverly playing the long game, which has two parts.
First, de Blasio has allowed his more vocal foes like Cuomo and police union chief Pat Lynch to score temporary political victories in forcing the mayor to back down, even while de Blasio is piling up tangible long-term achievements like universal pre-K and reducing stop-and-frisks.
Second, de Blasio is building national progressive coalitions—with the May 12 announcement in Washington, D.C., as a prime example—because mayors have limited power and need support from state governments to pass laws to raise the minimum wage, and from the federal government to increase funding to build housing and modernize infrastructure.
This is a compelling story—but it leaves something out. If your stated goal is to tackle inequality, at some point, you really do have to wage a fight against the forces defending inequality, like Cuomo and Lynch, rather than backing down every time.
“With de Blasio, we haven’t really seen that fight [against the powerful] yet,” an anonymous de Blasio supporter told Rolling Stone. “Anyone can talk about inequality. Marco Rubio can talk about inequality! But everyone’s tired of just words at this point.”
The de Blasio public relations team wants us to believe that the mayor is patiently amassing his forces against the armies of inequality before launching a decisive offensive. But if we’re going to use war analogies, let’s use the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War to look at the hapless Northern Gen. George McClellan, the commander of the Union Army in the early stages of the war.
McClellan was a celebrated officer before the war, renowned for drilling his soldiers and building up his forces until they looked invincible. But every time an opportunity arose to attack the Southern rebels, McClellan always found a reason why the timing wasn’t quite right and waiting for the next opportunity would be even better.
The problem wasn’t McClellan’s toughness or bravery, but his politics: he was a pro-slavery 1 Percenter who didn’t have the stomach for waging an all-out war against the Confederacy, preferring instead to endlessly put off the battle in the hopes that at one point, he could amass such overwhelming forces that he wouldn’t even have to fight.
McClellan’s fellow Democrat de Blasio is adopting a similar strategy, running further and further away from New York City to amass a national liberal army that he sees as a show of strength. But the modern day Robert E. Lees on Wall Street, at One Police Plaza and in Albany recognize his strategy as a sign of weakness.
Yes, there are limits to a mayor’s power. But there are many things that Bill de Blasio could do to immediately wage an all-out war on inequality in New York City.
He could fire Bill Bratton, disavow Broken Windows policing and implement a new policy in poor neighborhoods of zero tolerance for low wages, unnecessary school suspensions and wage theft.
He could tell parents and students that they have a right to refuse state tests that are mainly designed to label their schools failures. He could hold a press conference every week in Albany asking why Cuomo refuses to comply with a court order to give an additional $2.5 billion to New York City schools.
He could order the city’s Finance Department to end its corrupt system of property evaluations that consistently under-taxes wealthy building owners and overtaxes working-class homeowners.
Finally, he could encourage the development of popular democracy (remember that de Blasio was elected with a record low voter turnout) by opening up city plazas and parks to community groups and protest planners, and encouraging working class New Yorkers to organize for their own agenda.
Of course, de Blasio is doing none of these things, which would terrify the 1 Percent and their representatives in government and media, and possibly spell the end of his political career. Instead, de Blasio is content to make some progressive speeches, take whatever concessions the rich and powerful will offer, and call it a day.
That’s basically the same method used by centrist Democrats like Barack Obama, who de Blasio fashions himself to be challenging.
And like Obama, the mayor is thin-skinned to criticisms from those who dare to suggest he could be fighting for more. “A lot of people outside New York City,” de Blasio told Rolling Stone in a comment that definitely didn’t play well in the tabloids, “understand what happened in the first year of New York City better than people in New York City.”
What de Blasio ascribes to a strange trick of inverse geography is actually a simple matter of class. Working-class New Yorkers haven’t seen de Blasio make a dent in the crushing gap between rich and poor that defines life in the city.
But when the mayor travels across the country, he gets a great response from the strata that comprises the true base of today’s Democratic Party: not ordinary voters, but the advocates who staff the liberal officialdom of unions and nonprofit organizations. These supporters can relate to de Blasio and his strategy of raising money and giving rousing speeches in order to…raise more money and give more rousing speeches.
Back in New York City, where the rent is still too damn high, the rich are still too damn rich, and the cops are still too damn aggressive, many of us are less impressed. De Blasio may be talking today about a bold new Contract With America, but in this city—with more union members than anyplace in the country—people can tell you that a contract is only as good as your willingness to fight to back it up.