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The Promise of Pragmatism

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eye on the news

The Promise of Pragmatism

Can moderate Democratic leaders resist progressive excess? December 28, 2021
Politics and law
New York

In his victory night speech in New York City, an electrified Mayor-elect Eric Adams reserved his most scathing criticism not for his Republican opponent but for outgoing mayor Bill de Blasio. “This city betrays New Yorkers every day, especially the ones who rely on it the most,” said the incoming 110th mayor. Such pointed criticism might be expected when a candidate from one party succeeds an officeholder from the other party, but it sounds strange coming from one Democrat following another. After eight years of governance that placed ineffective progressivism over pragmatism, could the Adams administration represent the possible emergence of a moderate, results-oriented faction in New York’s nearly hegemonic Democratic Party?

November’s inflection point was reminiscent of others in Gotham’s more recent past. Following Rudy Giuliani’s winning reelection bid in 1997, the New York Times opined that his success signified “a triumph of nuts-and-bolts pragmatism over the ideology and party loyalty that once ruled elections in New York.” But Bill de Blasio’s 2013 victory saw the pendulum swing back. The Times suggested that this election marked a “forceful rejection of the hard-nosed, business-minded style of governance that reigned at City Hall for the past two decades and a sharp leftward turn for the nation’s largest metropolis.”

Unlike the 1990s and 2000s, when Republican candidates could win major mayoral elections, Democrats today possess almost unilateral control over most large American cities. New York is chief among them. That may change someday, but in the meantime it’s important to recognize the influx of some 1.5 million more residents since the Giuliani days, many of them educated and motivated professionals who tend to identify as liberal and dislike the national Republican brand. Buoyed by these voters, New York’s Democratic Party sanctioned measures to close Rikers Island, end pretrial detention for many defendants, shift $1 billion of the NYPD’s budget to other services, and impose higher taxes on wealthier citizens.

One might conclude that New Yorkers’ everyday priorities are tilting ever leftward, but that would be mistaken. A closed primary erodes the benefits of remaining Republican or Independent, leading many moderates to break ranks. Last year, 67,965 unaffiliated voters and 20,528 Republicans switched allegiances in the Empire State to become newly minted Democrats and thereby participate in the now all-important primary. The vastly lopsided ratio of Democratic to GOP voters doesn’t necessarily reflect the shared ground that underlies most urban voters’ preferences and concerns.

Manhattan Institute polling shows that city dwellers of all political and demographic stripes across the U.S. largely share similar priorities. They want efficient and effective services, reasonably affordable housing, a safe place to raise their families, and good schools. These differ markedly from de Blasio’s 2013 campaign promise to end the so-called “tale of two cities” by narrowing income inequality. And unlike the progressive flank of the Democratic Party that favors defunding the police, 72 percent of survey respondents favored greater police involvement in responding to quality-of-life issues like graffiti, public urination, and littering.

If governance focused on quality of life and efficiency cannot enter City Hall today through Republican mayoralties, it can nonetheless appear through attitudinal shifts between Democratic administrations. As Manhattan Institute senior fellow Daniel DiSalvo has observed in his work on factions, “What happens within American parties shows us something important about them and about how they impact other institutions of government.” In effect, Adams’s pragmatic faction within the Democratic Party partially compensates for the lack of competition between the two major parties in New York.

Evidence suggests that urban voters are capable of choosing responsive governance over partisan purity—and not just in New York. Voters this November also rewarded moderate incumbent Buffalo mayor Byron Brown by casting enough write-in ballots for him over India Walton, a socialist who bested him earlier in the Democratic primary. GOP chief executives in deep-blue states, such as Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland, rank among the most popular in the U.S. And just a month before centrist Republican mayor of San Diego Kevin Faulconer was to hand over the reins to his Democratic successor, the city council handed him a victory when it passed most of his plan to expand housing supply near transit corridors and increase development fees in car-dependent neighborhoods.

Since many local issues don’t line up neatly along partisan lines, results-oriented leaders have an opportunity. For example, land-use laws that prohibit higher densities not only stall economic development and needlessly raise prices but also entrench economic inequality by barring younger and lower-income families from living in high-opportunity areas. Yet for all of de Blasio’s talk about reducing inequality and the construction of government-regulated affordable housing, New York’s housing supply failed to keep pace with its job growth. Rising inflation threatens to aggravate this already-untenable situation, so the mayor-elect should make up-zoning and supply growth core priorities.

Among Adams’s other plans, especially important are those to implement a municipal hiring freeze for two years and institute the Program to Eliminate the Gap, which seeks to boost efficiency through agency spending cuts of 3 percent to 5 percent. The mayor-elect must hold firm against the public-sector unions that endorsed him during the primary; caving in would add to the costs of an already-bloated municipal workforce that accounts for much of New York City’s Florida-size, $102.8 billion budget.

After years of de Blasio’s ineffective vanity projects, coupled with rising crime and disorder, New Yorkers are ready for a change. If Mayor-elect Adams makes good on his promises to improve quality of life and boost municipal efficiency, he can succeed. Resisting progressive excess will be the key.

Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

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