Commentary Magazine


Bill de Blasio and New York’s New Normal

Few doubt that New York’s Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has benefitted from the twenty years of Republican governance he decried to win the Democratic nomination. New Yorkers’ memories of the disastrous Dinkins administration may be fuzzy, but there are also many with no memories of that era at all. For many this is difficult to believe, but yes: it really was that long ago.

That may have helped de Blasio win the election. But the fact that Republicans are victims of their own success to some degree in New York should not be too comforting to de Blasio. He and his backers seem to be forgetting the flip side to this coin: New Yorkers have gotten comfortable living in a safe city, and their tolerance for crime has thus diminished. De Blasio has almost no margin of error because his political base has no idea what it’s like to live in a city that can’t control its crime.

With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy later this month, remembrances of that era are everywhere. But in 2007, the New York Times reported on another reason to look back to 1963:

As 2007 draws to a close, it seems very likely that there will be fewer than 500 killings in the city (as of Sunday evening, there had been 492) for the first time since reliable records started being kept.

That was 1963.

The body count that year reflected the beginnings of what was to be an alarming rise in the city’s murder rate through 1990.

So if you live in New York today, you may remember the bad old days of high crime, but you probably don’t remember the last time the city was as safe as it has been in the current era. That’s the message Republican candidate Joe Lhota tried to send in his campaign ads against de Blasio. But the ads fell flat.

In fact, the reality of New York in 2013 left Lhota–a former deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration–grasping to conjure visions of a dangerous past as prologue. In one ad, he used footage from a recent biker gang attack to make his point. Yet this made no sense: showing recent crimes that took place under the “right” kind of public safety strategy is surely not a very good way to argue against theoretical changes in that strategy.

It was a riddle Lhota never came close to solving: how do you explain the consequences of certain policies to voters who aren’t familiar with either the consequences or the policies? Lhota might as well have been regaling the crowds with stories of how he used to walk to school uphill in the snow both ways while carrying his shoes.

But that doesn’t mean the new normal worked solely to de Blasio’s benefit. The very same elements that helped him win the mayoral election will likely have the opposite effect once in office. What kind of tolerance will the brunch-and-farmer’s-market crowd have for unsafe streets? De Blasio doesn’t want to find out.

And that means de Blasio will be confronted with a fact many on the left have, against all evidence, relentlessly denied: the NYPD is keeping the city safe. As Heather Mac Donald explained in the New York Post just before Election Day:

In the ’90s, the local press incessantly promoted other cities’ crime records as rivals to New York’s, so desperate was it to discredit the idea that New York’s dependency-routing Republican mayor and his newly assertive police department were behind the New York turnaround. Yet, by decade’s end, those other cities’ crime declines — most notably San Diego’s and Boston’s — flattened out or reversed. …

Today, Boston’s murder rate is twice New York’s; Washington DC’s is three times New York’s; Baltimore’s, five times. If New York’s blacks faced the same homicide risk as San Diego’s blacks, our city’s overall homicide rate would be nearly 75 percent higher.

Policing alone explains the New York crime-fighting difference. New York was nearly the same city in 1990 and 2010 regarding the same liberal “root causes” of crime — income inequality, poverty and drug use have not diminished. Even conservatives’ own pet “root cause” of crime — illegitimacy — hasn’t improved.

That will be a reality check for de Blasio, who subscribes to the classic liberal mode of governance: decry the rich while depending on them for revenue. This approach to governing really should have been discredited long ago: the rich already keep the city running with tax revenue and the money they spend around the city, and enabling the poorer city dwellers to improve their standard of living doesn’t get any easier when you soak the job creators.

But again, it’s hard to discredit something people have no memory of. There is no frame of reference for so many younger New Yorkers or those who have moved to the city in recent years. The New York they know–the only New York they know–is the one they live in now. They expect de Blasio to keep it that way.

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