Liberals were thrilled when 2012 Massachusetts voters sent Elizabeth Warren to the US Senate. Her victory was particularly sweet both because she defeated the once Tea Party darling Scott Brown and that she reclaimed the seat held for decades by Liberal Lion Ted Kennedy. Perhaps Senator Warren’s victory signaled a shift in the political landscape.
If the Warren vote seemed a ray of light for liberals, the 2013 election of Bill DeBlasio as New York’s first Democratic mayor in twenty years made it only brighter. An unabashed liberal, his Tale of Two Cities campaign theme resonated in a city where income inequality stands in such sharp relief. The new mayor’s predecessors — Republican Rudy Giuliani and poster person of the 1% Michael Bloomberg — had come to office with very different backgrounds and philosophy. Further evidence of a shift in the political landscape?
Perhaps, but some words of caution are in order. Warren won in a pretty reliably blue state, the only one captured by McGovern in 1972. Despite the concentration of wealth in Manhattan, New York is hardly a bastion of the Right. Also, and this should really give us pause, DeBlasio was elected with the city’s lowest ever (24% of eligible voters) turnout. That is most troubling especially when so many elections today are pretty much pre-decided in the primary season. All too often only a fraction of the population determines how, and by whom, we are governed. While DeBlasio’s low turnout may be attributed to polls projecting a no-contest blowout, we should never accept that as an excuse for not meeting our citizen obligation.
It is remarkable how quickly things can change in this connected age. In the public arena, the best example is the stunning and unexpected pace with which marriage equality is spreading across the land. But we should not be fooled by this anomaly. Shifting widespread electorate sentiment is something else entirely. Here the status quo is so deeply embedded that real change still moves at a snails pace. Add to that the success that conservatives have had in discrediting the word “liberal”. DeBlasio proudly stood under its banner but most candidates/officeholders are loath to do so, even when liberal fits their ideology and actions. Being thought of as a “centrist” is so much less controversial, so much safer. Think Bill Clinton. The really sad and frustrating thing is that while rank and file liberals like to talk (and criticize), they often shun activism or even their responsibility to cast votes. The Right has its Tea Party movement; the Left has none or at least none that grows or sustains — think Occupy.
So the Warren and DeBlasio votes are only small first steps, signs of a possible shift that need to be tested if they are to be expanded. In that context, despite the national stage on which senators play, the DeBlasio vote may be more important or more telling. To say public offices are not the same may be stating the obvious, but there is a huge difference between being a legislator and being a chief executive officer (president, governor or mayor). Senator Warren is one among one hundred. From time to time legislators pass laws (remember those days) and they do engage in oversight or constituent service. But what they do most is talk, regularly (in the Senate) to a camera and largely empty chairs. What they never have to do is deliver on that talk in the sense of making the trains run on time. Senators, whether named Warren or say McCain, can freely express their (and often our) views in the most direct and ideologically pure way. We love (or loathe) them for it, but we have little idea of what they might do if charged with getting those trains going. Almost without exception, they are destined to disappoint if and when taking on that task. This isn’t because their overriding views necessarily change, though that sometimes happens, but that talking about the rails and keeping cars on the track are two different things. Purity goes out the window when the nitty-gritty of execution sets in.
Just days in office, Bill DeBlasio has already discovered this reality. Removing snow from the streets of a huge spread out city is a challenge. For years people in New York’s outer boroughs or living on narrow streets, DeBlasio among them, have complained that their area wasn’t getting equal attention. Well, New Yorkers were complaining again, this time residents of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a haunt of the 1% unused to inattention. They complain and more importantly they read into what’s not happening (or what is). In this case, the streets were snowbound because the new liberal mayor is against the rich. Right.
Bloomberg, a Republican at the time, was the object of similar complaints as have been mayors of all cities throughout our history. Citizens, having voted or not, are unsparing in judging those who govern. Governors and presidents are similarly held accountable (think Bush and Katrina), but their portfolio is larger which usually provides them with some degree of cover. Not so with mayors. We expect our garbage to be picked up and we know who is at fault when it isn’t. As an avowed liberal, DeBlasio faces a special burden in the context of a larger environment where liberalism has been so discredited. Snowstorms aside, sure a successful businessman like Bloomberg can manage and deliver, but can a liberal? Not only his city but the country will be watching. I don’t envy him either the messy task of running New York where I spent most of my adult life or the visibility.
And without overstating it, the symbolic stakes are high. So are the risks. I have noted in earlier posts how this difference in campaigning and governing has impacted Obama. He came to office being perceived of as a liberal, though he didn’t run under that banner. Calling for change — yes we can — in the face of a conservative incumbent let us fill in the blanks. But effective governing requires a kind of pragmatism that, aside from the mechanics that produce victory, is largely absent from campaigns. And as I have written before, liberals and all Democrats face a special burden in proving not only that they can run things but that they are not soft on, for example, national security. DeBlasio campaigned against stop-and-frisk but he will be expected to keep crime in check without it.
The new liberal mayor has also decried development in Manhattan and elsewhere that is skewed toward the wealthy and is pricing out both the middle class and poor. Walk through New York today and you’ll feel the city is one uninterrupted construction zone. And speaking of zone, the Bloomberg administration was successful in changing the zoning of many areas which previously had limited such development. Redirecting that building boom to allow for greater affordable housing will be very difficult. With permits in hand and zoning changed, developers will unlikely reconfigure their plans much less stop. The election of a liberal mayor can’t change that and as Barack Obama recently reminded the New Yorker’s David Remnick, executive power is far more limited than one might think. DeBlasio supporters near and far, especially the purists, will at times be disappointed. In the end, he is likely to be judged not on whether he could turn a huge ship stuck in a narrow straight but if he managed the behemoth reasonably well and, yes, got rid of the snow. Meeting that test will help move the cause for liberalism further.
There is talk of Elizabeth Warren running for president. A chance for an avowed liberal to take on the big job. We certainly know what her ideology might be expected to bring to the office, but have no idea how she would actually perform. That can be said of all would-be presidents. She may be some liberals' hope, but there seems to be a growing groundswell by the liberal establishment to finally crown Hillary Clinton at the 2016 convention. When it comes to selecting candidates, parties behave more like sitting mayors, governors and presidents than legislators. They tend, or try to be, pragmatic — not what someone says or her/his ideology, but who they think can win. They also, and this is especially true for Republicans, often give the nod to those who paid their dues — ran unsuccessfully for the nomination before and are now entitled to the grand prize. That doesn’t always work out so well (Dole, McCain, Romney and John Kerry).
Leaving aside the question of dynasty, Clinton is more a credentialed centrist than a liberal. Despite finally disavowing the Iraq war and being our lead diplomat, she remains at heart more hawk than dove. She generally lobbied for intervention and escalation. A tireless traveler and effective relationship builder, her substantive accomplishments at State were limited. If Secretary Kerry is successful in any and certainly all of his bold initiatives, that modest record may not stand up well in contrast. While a big if given the odds, one would hope hard fast commitments won’t be prematurely made. Will I vote for a Clinton nominee, and with a high degree of confidence and enthusiasm? I will. The choice I made for Obama over Clinton was a hard one, not the least because I believe we are way overdue having a Ms. President in the White House. Will her nomination or victory advance a resurgence of liberalism in America? Not so much, or not as much as I and many others would like. That said, the obvious Democratic bench is small (in large measure do to the assumed Clinton ascension), so we may have to wait a little longer. After all, losing the presidency would be much more costly and not only for liberalism.