Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Three Pols in a Pickle
It's clear that the sour economy will be the biggest part of every political story over the next election cycle, exerting profound influence on voting outcomes through at least 2010 and probably beyond. Here in NYC, the downturn provided an excuse--though if that hadn't done, I'm sure another would have surfaced--for Michael Bloomberg to run for a third four-year term in office, thanks to machinations in City Council late last year. It's given focus to David Paterson's unanticipated governorship, now nearing its one-year mark. And of course it has dominated the first month-plus of Barack Obama's presidency. The sharply divergent fortunes of the three executive leaders offer some early clues about politics in the current recession.

Bloomberg is basically holding steady, with approval ratings and re-elect numbers either slightly declining or almost totally unchanged. Though the mayor is the only one of the three leaders whose tenure really predated the start of the downturn, nobody blames him for the recession; indeed, Bloomberg's record of fiscal stewardship in private business and public office, and perceived willingness to make the tough calls that the times will demand, comprise the justification for his third term bid. There seem to be two main threads to the case against him: the first is that Bloomberg simply doesn't care about any New Yorkers who fall below a certain tax bracket, and that his blindness to them drives policymaking in the city, and the second is that the mayor's stylistic demeanor--the political equivalent of bedside manner--leaves much to be desired. This encompasses his willingness to muscle aside the term limit law, an action that repulsed many good-government progressive types who gave enthusiastic support to the mayor's first re-election effort.

Personally I think there's at least a little validity to both beefs, given the main thrust and general tone of economic development policy over Bloomberg's eight years. At the same time, to conclude that the man altogether disdains the poor is to ignore the enormous amount of time and effort he's spent on reform of the public schools--a system not generally geared to Bloomberg's own social set--or the work of the Center for Economic Opportunity, which continues to pilot innovative programs to address the issues of entrenched urban poverty. And while Bloomberg's fairly transparent lack of regard for the norms and niceties of retail politicking can rankle, it's arguable both that this is a feature rather than a bug, and that it's vastly preferable to the reflexive pandering one would expect, and indeed already sees, from his Democratic opponents. My sense is that neither of them can take the Mayor--though that's not to say that he can't be taken.

And then there's Paterson. His polls are bad and getting worse, and he inspires no confidence--a terrible sign for a guy who hasn't yet run and won statewide on his own. Paterson is getting hammered every day by his putative allies: I receive daily e-mails from the Working Families Party devoted to statewide outrage at his evident reluctance to raise taxes on the very rich, and the powerful health care union is on the air seemingly every night complaining about his proposed cuts in that area. About the only folks who haven't come after the Democratic governor are the Republicans and the business community--groups that at the end of the day are very unlikely to support him. But as Paterson starts to wobble on some of his positions, they'll come too. A sure sign that Paterson has lost control is that colleagues are leaking on him, taking anonymous shots at his preparation and demeanor. His painfully inept handling of the U.S. Senate appointment marked the start of the governor's difficulties; the state budget situation could put him beyond hope for election next year. At this point I can't see voting for him, though if (God forbid) the choice is between him and the undead Rudy Giuliani, I probably will.

Finally, we get to Obama, whose non-State of the Union speech last night seems to have been very well received. I think thus far he's played the politics of recession very well: the public seems to buy into the notion that recovery will take some time, and they appreciate that he, and the Democrats in Congress, are at least throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. What I find interesting here is that for the better part of eight decades now, we've generally voted incumbents out when the economy sucks, and kept them in when times were good--a factor that probably distorted and exaggerated the political skills of every official, from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to a lot of mayors turned Representatives or governors, who rode the wave in the mid-1990s.

But in a sustained downturn, I think the message is received that reflexive "vote the bums out" won't do anything more than provide a political sugar rush, if that. Franklin Roosevelt obviously managed to win re-election bids when the economy was still objectively bad (if better) in 1936 and 1940; locally, Fiorello LaGuardia won again and again. At the state level, Herbert Lehman held the governorship from 1933 to 1942. Bad times don't mean inescapable political doom, though the perception that one's up the job--a sense people seem to have of Obama and Bloomberg, but not Paterson--is a must.


The Navigator said...

"we've generally voted incumbents out when the economy sucks, and kept them in when times were good--a factor that probably distorted and exaggerated the political skills of every official, from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to a lot of mayors turned Representatives or governors, who rode the wave in the mid-1990s."

Yes yes yes. I've suspected for some time that, tidal waves of over-analysis notwithstanding, this one factor probably explains about 80% of election results in this country. A whole bunch of politicians who were in power circa 1989-1993 - Florio, Dinkins, GHWBush - were turned out as incompetent boobs, and a whole lot of politicians who served circa 1993-1997 - Clinton, Pataki, Ridge, Rendell, Guiliani - were reelected and in some cases hailed as saviors. And Bush 41 had just recently won an extremely popular war! (Which I opposed. But I was in the small minority.) It's hard not to think that the random swings of the business cycle, by themselves, account for nearly all of these politicians' fortunes.

David said...

Well, it's not the only factor--doesn't explain 1994 or 2006, for instance, both years of okay growth IIRC. But it's probably more accurate than the usual practice of lionizing this or that supposed political visionary (James Baker, James Carville).