Commentary Magazine


De Blasio and the Left: Reality Bites

After Bill de Blasio’s landslide victory, I wrote that New York’s incoming mayor had benefited greatly from what I called “the Obama effect.” President Obama had developed the blueprints for an inexperienced far-left activist to win a general election: rely on lofty rhetoric, because no one believes it anyway. That is, no one believes a modern-day politician would be foolish or reckless enough to actually carry out all the left’s preferred economic and security policies. Today’s New York Times confirms that I was mostly right: I should have said “almost no one.”

It turns out that some delusional true believers really do expect liberal politicians to trash the private sector in the name of social “justice” and sacrifice public safety out of some deranged hatred of the police. And they are unhappy with de Blasio. The new mayor might have thought he earned a bit of patience from the left. After all, he has already restricted effective and legal policing, and the results are clear: shootings have increased as the police have taken fewer guns off the street.

But that appears to have only whetted the appetites of the city’s hard-leftists. They got a taste of mayhem, and want more of it:

The mayor who shot to fame denouncing stop-and-frisk tactics and luxury condominiums is now defending hard-nosed policing and cutting deals with developers, bowing to the realities of leading an unruly city but also angering an activist left that propelled his rise to the Democratic elite.

Impatience with the mayor is now spilling into outcry. On Wednesday, housing advocates will march in Harlem to highlight what they say is a too-weak effort by City Hall to build affordable homes. And the Rev. Al Sharpton is planning a march on Saturday to call for an end to aggressive policing in the wake of a black Staten Island man’s death after being placed in a chokehold during a routine arrest.

Mr. de Blasio, who advisers say is deeply concerned about disappointing his supporters, has struggled to explain that the lofty liberal rhetoric of his mayoral campaign cannot be imported wholesale into City Hall — that there may be a limit on how many affordable units can be extracted from developers, that the so-called broken-windows policing strategy often credited with helping to lower crime cannot be abandoned overnight.

Really the whole story is worth reading. De Blasio, of course, isn’t actually tough on crime–by normal standards, at least. Only in the fever swamps of the left is he taking a hard line. And in a way, you can’t blame them. He did tell them he was one of them. On the other hand, there was no reason to believe him–the idea that de Blasio was being completely honest on the campaign trail did not really occur to seasoned observers. De Blasio’s base wants him to govern as if he were insane. He’s not insane. Therefore they will continue to be disappointed.

But the fact that he’s not insane is not a high enough bar. Public safety has already receded, and some of the miraculous gains made by de Blasio’s predecessors are beginning–only beginning–to fade. He’s at a crossroads, but it does offer de Blasio an opportunity: he has plenty of time to correct his mistakes and keep New York City on an even keel for the rest of his term.

It’s early enough that the damage from de Blasio’s mistakes is far from irreversible. And I think the Times story is unfair to de Blasio when it says: “Yet at home, Mr. de Blasio, who swept into office on the promise that New York City could be governed from the left, is discovering that liberalism has its limits.”

Is it true that de Blasio is discovering that liberalism has limits? I doubt it. Surely de Blasio has some terrible ideas about governing, as would anyone who was inspired to public service by the Marxist Sandinistas. But the manifold failures of big-government liberalism throughout the last century make it unlikely that any politician smart enough to win a serious office like New York City mayor in a landslide is just learning, on the job, that liberalism has limits. Liberalism is nothing but limits.

What de Blasio is dealing with now is a sector of the left–grown increasingly louder and more numerous in recent years–that doesn’t consider the results of public policy to be relevant. For the dedicated left, the value in a policy is its intentions and the purity of its identity politics. Gun crime is up, and to the left it matters not. De Blasio is not learning that his policies reduce public safety. He’s learning that his left-wing base wants those policies anyway.

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