It was one of the great ironies of the 1992 presidential election that talk of a “peace dividend” contributed to Bill Clinton’s victory over George H.W. Bush by portraying Bush not as a failure, but as a success. As vice president and then as president, Bush presided over the American victory in the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its peaceful passage of power from Gorbachev to Yeltsin. Americans could attempt to fully turn their attention away from foreign policy, and thus away from the need to reelect Bush.
Along those lines, Charles Lane at the Washington Post had a very perceptive column last month arguing that when it came to crime, Republicans were victims of their own success. Lane wrote:
It is a GOP triumph, because the enormous decline in crime over the past two decades coincided with the widespread adoption of such conservative ideas as “broken windows” policing and mandatory minimum sentences….
We’ll never know whether 2012 would have played out the same way if crime had staged a comeback during the recession, as many expected. Certainly in the past, crime was as important to the Republican brand as abortion and gay rights, if not more important.
Safer streets, though, have blunted what was once a sharp wedge issue, and, perhaps, freed the electorate to consider social and moral issues in a different light.
In fact, in recent times no place has been more important to the GOP’s image as successful crime fighters than New York City, where many of those policies were tested and proved their worth. Lane wrote that Democrats cannot afford politically to stray far from the GOP’s stance on crime because voters believe it is the GOP’s approach that reduced crime.
This, too, is an ongoing phenomenon in New York. And both factors may very well influence New York’s next mayoral race the way Lane believes they influenced the 2012 presidential election. With no prominent Republican in the mayoral race, Joe Lhota, the city’s transportation authority chief, stepped down to explore a run for mayor. Lhota is a well respected alumnus of Rudy Giuliani’s administration, and as the New York Times reports, Giuliani’s success has changed the city’s self-perception in ways that may hinder Lhota’s run:
One of Mr. Lhota’s earliest challenges could be determining how to characterize his ties to Mr. Giuliani, a polarizing figure who was an influential mayor.
Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, the city’s premier business association, said in an interview that a Lhota campaign would provide an opportunity to “remind us of what New York City was like 25 years ago” — before Republican administrations seized control of Gracie Mansion.
“So many current residents don’t remember,” she said. “It will be a good education for many young or new New Yorkers, who take for granted that New York has always been as vibrant and safe and livable a city as it is today.”
Lhota, essentially, may have too good a record to run on. To be sure, there are other marks against Lhota, the primary one being a fare hike Lhota helped bring about. Others include starting off with relatively weak poll numbers and the usual low Republican voter registration. But the fare hike is another irony: voters may concentrate on having to pay more for a subway ride, but may gloss over the speed with which Lhota’s MTA got the city’s transportation system back up and running after Hurricane Sandy.
New Yorkers may take their subways for granted. I don’t remember fully appreciating the New York transportation system until experiencing the Washington, D.C. metro–known for its constant delays, derailing trains, ever-broken escalators, doors that open when the train is in motion but not when they trap an infant without its mother, train schedules that will get you to a Nationals baseball game but may not be running trains when the game is over, and of course the occasional bird of prey joining morning commuters or even, on special occasions, getting its own train.
So Lhota has his work cut out for him. But the New York GOP can take some solace in the fact that if Democrats take the mayor’s office for the first time in two decades, they won’t have done it without 20 years of Republican success in the interim.