How bizarre, you might think, to see the clean-cut, well-pressed GOP delegates flock to edgy Gotham for their convention. What business have such red-state characters in the city of the hipster and the homeboy, the feminist and the Timesman?
But think again. For New York is also the home of one of the GOP’s greatest recent triumphs, Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s salvation of a city that the newsweeklies had diagnosed as near death only a few years earlier. And he saved it by quintessentially Republican remedies, making New York an advertisement for GOP domestic policy.
What makes this success all the more instructive is that it reversed decades of ultra-liberal policies that had brought the city to the brink of disaster. Pre-Giuliani New York was the embodiment of urban liberalism’s worldview, a municipal welfare state, Moscow-on-the-Hudson (as critics called it). Government’s job, this view held, was to uplift the mostly minority poor, victims of an oppressive society and exploitative economy, through lavish welfare policies and a cornucopia of social services. Gotham’s businesses and taxpayers existed to support all of this. Since racism and exclusion bred crime—which was an understandable, almost excusable, rebellion against oppression—cops and judges should be lenient and should avoid “blaming the victim,” as the then-current cliché had it. Schools were not to impose the values of the majority culture upon minority kids, to regiment them and keep them in their place, but should instead strengthen their self-esteem. As for the homeless, they were another class of victims, and their disorderly behavior in public places was just another version of the “transgressiveness” that a cosmopolitan metropolis should celebrate.
The predictable result: a welfare explosion, with one in seven New Yorkers on the dole, an entrenched underclass, a crime wave and menacing sense of public disorder that drove away over a million residents, a huge and costly growth in government-funded workers and the political power of their unions, a corporate exodus that shrank the ranks of big-company headquarters from 140 to 30, and so many failing schools that a great swathe of the city turned into a so-called “educational dead zone.”
To all this, Giuliani opposed the Republican ideals of limited government and personal responsibility. Instead of multiplying womb-to-tomb welfare programs, he believed, government should provide only a few key services. Its primary function, as political theorists had traditionally insisted, is ensuring that citizens are safe in the streets and in their homes. Accordingly, Giuliani revolutionized Gotham’s policing, directing cops not just to solve crimes but to prevent them. He instituted an array of techniques to do that. These included a computerized crime-mapping system that allowed the NYPD to deploy cops to the high-crime areas where they were most needed and an activist policing style, designed to get guns off the streets, to prevent the minor disorder—marijuana selling in the parks or public urination or graffiti vandalism—that breeds serious crime, and to persuade the criminally-inclined that ever-vigilant cops wouldn’t let them get away with anything.
By the end of Giuliani’s two terms, overall crime had dropped by more than half and murder by two-thirds from its high of 2,200 annual killings at the Dinkins administration’s nadir. The result was a citywide revitalization, as tourists and residents, no longer fearful, flocked into restaurants and theaters, and formerly crime-blighted commercial strips, beginning with Times Square, came back to life. The city’s image, once the squalid dystopia depicted in movies like Taxi Driver, regained its glamour, as in Sex and the City. Gotham’s universities became “hot”; its newly orderly and refurbished parks once more became embodiments of democratic civility. Even Hollywood stars started buying Manhattan co-ops.
Minority neighborhoods, where crime fell the most, showed equally spectacular results. In areas where residents had learned to eat sitting on the floor, to avoid stray bullets from drug gangs’ gunfights, civil society was reborn. Minority business boomed, creating tens of thousands of minority jobs. Critics carped that the new activist policing was racist—as if the perpetrators of black-on-black crime were more important (and more authentically black) than the victims. But the law-abiding majority of blacks, who could now lead normal lives, knew better.
Under Giuliani, New York became one of the nation’s earliest beacons of welfare reform, with a requirement that welfare recipients work in exchange for benefits and with new eligibility checks that cut fraud. No benefit comes without responsibilities, Giuliani liked to stress, since we are all participants in the social contract. The welfare rolls fell by more than half, as recipients decided that, since they had to work, they’d may as well get jobs that paid better than workfare. In a radical break with New York’s longstanding political orthodoxy but in line with a core tenet of Bush-era Republicanism, Giuliani considered it no favor to a poor person to offer her a lifetime of welfare dependency, as if she were unfit for anything better. Such an approach was disrespectful, a kind of soft bigotry. Even more important, in Giuliani’s view, self-respect isn’t possible without self-reliance.
Though Giuliani didn’t undertake welfare reform primarily as a money saving measure but rather as a moral imperative in a polity of equal citizens, he certainly rejected the high tax, big spending element of New York’s traditional Democratic political culture. It was, he believed, destructive of the private enterprise that created the city’s prosperity. After all, as a City Journal study showed, if Gotham’s taxes—the nation’s highest—were only as high as the average old Eastern or Midwestern industrial city, New York would boast 1 million more jobs than it actually has. Accordingly, Giuliani was a tax-cutter from the moment he took office, and he cut taxes further each year of his administration. As supply-side theory would predict, total tax collections rose, and by 1999 New York’s job growth outpaced the national rate for the first time since World War II.
On education, Giuliani’s approach was in the spirit of the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on standards, achievement, and accountability. His administration replaced the City University’s policy of accepting anyone with a New York high school diploma—which may have produced self-esteem but certainly resulted in plummeting educational standards and a smaller proportion of employable graduates—with much more stringent requirements for admission and graduation. He tried manfully to work the same transformation on the public school system, but a series of weak school chancellors and the opposition of the teachers’ union (the Democratic Party’s most powerful constituency) ultimately defeated him, leading him to advocate a school voucher experiment.
In all this, Giuliani held himself to the same standard of personal responsibility he applied to others. He didn’t believe, as New York’s Democratic orthodoxy once held, that vast, impersonal, irresistible forces shape the world and people’s fates, but rather that the actions and decisions of individuals determine events—especially the actions of resolute leaders. The vibrant New York City that will welcome the GOP delegates next week is the fruit of that tough and quintessentially Republican vision.