As goes New York, so should go the country. That’s political gospel according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s also the takeaway from his lecture to political America this past week, in a harsh economics speech that took Washington to task for – well, for being Washington.
He denounced partisan bickering, accused Democrats and Republicans of putting politics ahead of the nation’s well-being, as he championed his brand of centrism and boasted about a rebounding New York. “Both parties follow the moment instead of leading from the front,’’ he said, advocating, without many specifics, entrepreneurship, job training, innovation, business tax cuts and immigration reform. Do what we do and act like I act, he advised his national counterparts.
Though Bloomberg insists that he will not run for president, he clearly likes the spotlight, and preaching about his brand of New York pragmatism is one way to nourish the hope that lightning will strike. If it doesn’t, it gives him a national forum during his lame duck mayoral years.
There is, however, a problem with the idea of a United States of Centrism: New York is not the rest of the country. Its politics are radically different from those anywhere else in the nation, and so is its economy.
In his speech to friendly business leaders, Bloomberg noted that the city (though far from its pre-recession glory days) is recovering faster than the nation, leading the creation of private-sector jobs and in economic growth. He cited his policies and the importance of encouraging innovation and nurturing an atmosphere welcoming to business, calling his approach neither liberal nor conservative, but “effective.’’
But the city’s mayors can only do so much. They can, as Bloomberg has, create a climate that encourages business by focusing on critical issues: crime, education, the infrastructure, zoning, tourism, tax policies. They have choices to make and some in the past have made the wrong ones, hurting the economy with ill-conceived subsidies or by treating business interests with hostility.
But the city does not stand in isolation. It does not print money. It is buffeted, lifted or turned inside-out by national and international economic trends that no mayor can control. “You can do some little programs that make a difference, but not a great one,’’ said Alair Townsend, a Deputy Mayor for Finance and Economic Development under Mayor Edward Koch. “There are energy savings, real estate tax abatements. You can be a cheerleader for sensible tax policies. You can do job training, smart things. This mayor has done smart things. But it is all at the margins.’’
And in New York because it is the home of Wall Street, larger factors are always at work. Though Bloomberg did not mention it in his speech, after the recession flattened the financial industry, federal stimulus programs restored Wall Street, expanding badly needed city tax revenues. And actions of the Federal Reserve to keep the dollar low have flooded the city with tourists and foreign investment.
New York City simply has a different profile from the rest of the nation. Because it is still a city of renters and most co-op boards demand money up front, few of the risky financial instruments that hurt homebuyers elsewhere were in play in New York. And because manufacturing took a huge hit in this economic meltdown, New York was lucky to have lost its manufacturing base years ago. The city simply had few manufacturing jobs left to lose.
Those distinctions separate New York from the rest of the country, just as its progressive, unabashedly liberal politics distinguishes it from Washington’s.
The mayor of New York deals with a weak, compliant City Council, while the president has to contend with a balky, two-party Congress representing a contentious, diverse nation--not to mention a muscular Supreme Court.
Could Washington really adopt a New York state of mind? Hard to imagine. But, as Mayor Bloomberg’s can attest, the mere notion makes for a provocative talking point. And more than a few headlines.
Joyce Purnick, author of "Mike Bloomberg, Money, Power, Politics," was an editor, reporter and columnist at The New York Times for 29 years and the long-time author of the award-winning “Metro Matters” column. A native New Yorker educated in its public schools, Ms. Purnick has, so far, covered six mayors of New York.