Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Tale of Two Mayors
I've made no secret, here or anywhere else, of the fact that I'm a big fan of current NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and an equally big detractor of his predecessor Rudy Giuliani. And even considering that we're 20-plus months from the 2008 presidential election, I find it distinctly unnerving that Giuliani, with his unholy blend of narcissism and authoritarianism, is leading in many primary and general election polls.

Yes, it's more likely than not that he'll blow it in one of several ways. He might find it impossible to sufficiently pander to the Zombie Army voters who swoon for his perceived toughness but choke on the abortion-supporting, gay-tolerating, drag-dressing track record that was his price of entrance for high office in socially liberal New York City. (As a side note, the frequent descriptions of Giuliani as a moderate or even liberal Republican has to be Exhibit A for the silliness of these labels. There's more that goes into political character than one's stances on sex-related "issues" that sell copy and draw eyeballs but are crashingly irrelevant to most Americans.) His many unsavory personal ties, from marrying his cousin and publicly running around on his second wife to elevating the odious Bernie Kerik from personal driver to NYC police chief to Secretary of Homeland Security nominee and setting the even more odious Russell Harding loose within the city bureaucracy, could be his undoing. Or he might simply blow up at a questioner at a New Hampshire diner or Iowa fair, while a cellphone or digital camera silently captures the moment for YouTubing. It's also possible that he just isn't up for a tough political fight; after all, he hasn't had one since 1993, rolling over the politically inept Ruth Messinger in 1997 and bowing out early from the 2000 Senate campaign.

Somewhat like Hillary Clinton (but with perhaps a bit more justification owing solely to 9/11), Giuliani is trying to mount a cult of personality campaign around a personality that isn't really likable. He must hope that his aura of "leadership" will outweigh the many factual strikes against him, and that his stature as mayor of New York City during a period when perceived (and, to be fair, actual) quality of life improved here will obscure some of the specifics that mar his record.

Meanwhile, there's Bloomberg. He has no cult of personality; for the first two years of his mayoralty, it wasn't clear that he had a personality. But he's made city government work better here than it ever has, and probably better than it's worked anywhere. He's taken on the toughest issues and almost redeemed the Ross Perot ideal of "running government like a business"--if that means demanding performance and accountability, rather than seeking to maximize profits for investors (the Bush/Cheney version of this trope). Will he run for president? At the moment, I doubt it, though there will be a huge window for some third-party candidate to jump in during the six months of buyers' remorse between when the nominees are decided and the conventions are held. Could he win? I doubt that even more, because his money can't buy him a myth, and that's where our politics are right now.

Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, deftly compares the last two Republicans to run the Big Apple:

[T]he presidential bid Rudy announced last week is... based on the notion that he is an effective manager who tamed an out-of-control metropolis and ran it efficiently. The real picture is somewhat more complicated. Giuliani was a frustrated and not very popular mayor on Sept. 10, 2001. Today, most New Yorkers do see him as a hero, but also as a self-sabotaging, thin-skinned bully. To put it more bluntly, we know he's a bit of a dictator.

The leadership/management dichotomy runs through Giuliani's two terms. When he first took office in 1994, New York desperately needed the kind of head-knocking at which he excels. After a quarter-century of decline, the city had become ungovernable and increasingly unlivable. The bloated public sector soaked up more and more resources to deliver less and less; quality of life measured by a dozen different indicators continued to erode. Like Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Rudy arrived bearing a strong message of "enough!" With a relish for combat, he took on a long list of civic tormentors who had been comfortable for too long, including municipal labor leaders, racial demagogues, and uncompromising civil libertarians.
But over time, Giuliani's Putin (or Rasputin)-like tendencies became increasingly evident. Instead of taking on new challenges after his re-election in 1997, he dedicated his second term to punishing his enemies, including his wife at the time. He made his former driver, Bernard Kerik, chief of police and retreated even further into the comfort of his cronies. Fran Reiter, who served as a deputy mayor under Giuliani, describes him as depressed and directionless after being sworn in for the second time. "He can get mired in the petty stuff," she told me. "He doesn't suffer political opponents well, and there are times when he doesn't compromise well."

In his second term, Giuliani showed himself to be a classic micromanager, unable to delegate and unwilling to share the spotlight. He had already driven out William Bratton, his victorious chief of police, in a battle over credit. Bratton's fate was sealed when he, not Rudy, appeared on the cover of Time. Nor could Giuliani abide mockery. He went to court to try to stop New York magazine from advertising itself on the sides of buses as "POSSIBLY THE ONLY GOOD THING IN NEW YORK RUDY HASN'T TAKEN CREDIT FOR." After Sept. 11, he threatened, in Caudillo-like fashion, to ignore the legal term limit and run for re-election again if the candidates running to succeed him didn't all agree to let him stay in office for three extra months.

Rudy's weaknesses as a manager—and as a human being—have become more evident in the light of his successor, Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has neither a whim of steel nor a pandering bone in his body. Arriving in 2002 at a City Hall that had no e-mail system or computerized payroll, he quietly cleaned up the mess—including a huge number of dubious, no-bid contracts—without faulting his predecessor. He and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, have managed to continue to make further gains against crime, which few thought possible, without becoming obsessed with their press clippings. Above all, Bloomberg has taken on the big problems Giuliani never faced, without the constant attitude that he might declare martial law if you cross him again.
This comparison doesn't make the case for Bloomberg as president so much as it underscores what a scary place a Giuliani White House could be. President Rudy would give powerful speeches denouncing terrorism while assuming extraordinary wartime powers. He'd reject compromise with his antagonists and ignore the nuts and bolts of running a government. After a few years, he'd be on nonspeaking terms with much of his cabinet, never mind his fellow world leaders. By the time he got done, he might make us appreciate George W. Bush.

Pretty much. Giuliani is obviously much smarter than Bush, and he's made his way in life far more on his own merits than the Deciderer. But he shares Bush's vanity and essential uninterest in policy, and he might be even more arrogant. A Giuliani administration could take the core bad ideas of the Bush presidency--that all politics is personal, that the perception of toughness is more important than actual deeds, that nuance is defeatist and that power is best exercised by one inspired Leader rather than through a messy collective process--and match them with some degree of operational competence. A scary thought, that.

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