New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has been traipsing off to South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Iowa some weekends as he considers joining the crowded presidential field, despite nearly zero interest in his potential candidacy on the part of the national voting public.
For better or worse, voters crave a president with a strong, simple policy vision. Donald Trump won with a vision of retreat from poorly managed globalization and demographic change, and Barack Obama won on a promise of reforms to the health insurance, financial and energy industries that would benefit consumers.
De Blasio’s record as mayor doesn’t have a policy theme. It’s just a mishmash of half-executed ideas that add up to a city little different than it was before he got here. Even his biggest accomplishments, rather than striking out in a bold new direction, are building on existing trends.
Let’s start with the mayor’s two main policy accomplishments: first, pre-K for all. In 2013, de Blasio ran on universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds, and he is now expanding it to 3-year-olds. To his credit, 70,000 children now attend pre-K, up from 19,000 before he took office. And quality has improved too. In January, The New York Times reported, “In 2018, about 94 percent of the city’s prekindergarten programs met or exceeded a threshold that predicts positive student outcomes after pre-K, according to a national evaluation system.” In 2015, only 77% of the programs were up to snuff. The mayor made a promise and kept it – and tens of thousands of working parents are better off, at the very least avoiding day care costs.
Yet de Blasio’s victory here was more of an election-branding exercise than a radical turnaround for New York City. Universal pre-K first was championed by de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. In 2007, Bloomberg noted that “since 2002, we’ve increased the number of available free pre-kindergarten seats by more than 9,000,” and converted slots to full-day from half-day, part of a push toward “universal pre-kindergarten.” Bloomberg focused his outreach on the poorest students, while de Blasio has created a middle-class and even upper-class entitlement. De Blasio’s own signature program was an incremental improvement on his predecessor’s work.
The same is true of de Blasio’s other main achievement: the continued drop in crime. Last year, New York City had one of its lowest number of murders ever in the modern era: 295. The NYPD has continued to reduce the number of stop and frisks, which also began under Bloomberg. That’s good, for as long as it lasts, but it is hard to credit de Blasio for bringing to New York an epiphany about crime. New Yorkers have enjoyed nearly 30 years of violence reduction. De Blasio inherited what at one time seemed like a miracle and has maintained it – a salutary result, but hardly evidence of his unique ability to lead the nation.
Indeed, pre-K and crime point out the general de Blasio dilemma: At best, the mayor is a caretaker who hasn’t too thoroughly screwed up the mostly healthy city he inherited. You can see the mayor’s frustration, if you apply this logic to the issues Democratic primary voters might care about.
The environment? Again, Bloomberg created “Plan NYC,” New York’s long-term environmental blueprint; de Blasio’s main contribution was to change the name to “One NYC.” The mayor has now had five years to radically remake how New Yorkers get around by providing faster, more efficient bus service, for example. He has just now finally begun to roll out policies to increase bus speeds. Although he has improved safety for pedestrians – although results have slipped this year – he hasn’t cut back on cars: Instead, New York has record-slow traffic and a record number of private cars. City-owned vehicles are also racking up more miles. Even redesigning streets for the benefit of bicyclists and pedestrians was started by Bloomberg. New York City Council members, not the mayor, have driven recent key environmental initiatives, including the push to tax plastic bags (now a statewide ban).
Inequality? De Blasio keeps trying to get national attention by intoning ominously that America’s money is “in the wrong hands.” But New York City’s taxes – on the rich and middle class alike – were already sky-high when de Blasio took office. Absent far more competent management of record tax revenues, it’s going to be hard to sell Gotham to the rest of the nation as a progressive success. Public schools, public housing and public transit are all still subpar, given the money the city and state throw at them, and the city fails to address the seriously mentally ill, all too visible on its streets.
Respect for science-based regulation? The mayor has spent five years bullying horse carriage drivers on false claims of abuse and poor working conditions, with no real reason for the pressure except that key de Blasio donors dislike the horse carriage industry.
One force behind the Trump victory nearly three years ago hasn’t dissipated: the desire to “drain the swamp.” Trump has left plenty of swamp to drain. But is de Blasio the person to do it? The mayor is the consummate special-interest politician; his latest pay-to-play scandal is for the city to pay an above-market price for a portfolio of homeless hotels owned by a family with a key donor connection to the mayor. In a hypothetical debate with the current president – extremely hypothetical at this point, to be sure – de Blasio would have no moral authority to take on Trump’s own shady real estate practices.
De Blasio, despite his rhetoric, has never been a good radical; he’s too beholden to the local fundraising machine. But he’s also not a good technocrat: key initiatives to turn around underperforming high schools and help people with mental illnesses have failed, with the mayor barely noticing. It’s not clear which path, ultimately, Democratic primary voters will choose, but they would seem to want one of these two choices – and the mayor fits neither bill.
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