Conservatives, Manhattan Institute fellows, City Journal readers, and New York City Republicans (these are overlapping constituencies to be sure) all had serious misgivings about the just-concluded New York City mayor’s race. Few have any great love for Mayor Bloomberg, who is not a conservative at all, and is in fact a self-proclaimed RINO (Republican in Name Only)—and even then, only when he thinks the Republican label is useful to him; he is happy to discard it when it isn’t. Moreover, the mayor is given to exasperating ideological busybody crusades, such as his wars on smoking and trans fat, and schemes of ill-considered grandiosity, such as a publicly funded West Side Stadium for the Jets and the effort to secure the Olympics for New York. At least, of the latter, we can say that he was no more successful than President Obama. And that’s before we even get to his legal, but still contemptuous, reversal of the twice-ratified term limits law or his serial undermining of the political process with all those “anonymous,” peace-buying donations to liberal interest groups.
But to turn from Bloomberg to Bill Thompson was to choose despair over exasperation. Thompson is hardly the worst politician that the city’s Democratic machine has nominated for mayor. Nonetheless, he is a Democratic machine pol. At best, his administration would have offered plodding, mostly well-meaning government informed by tired liberal nostrums. Nothing would have changed for the better, and many things would have changed for the worse, if slowly. At worst, the eventual result would have been a return to the twin troughs of the mid-’70s and early ’90s: high crime, higher taxes, municipal bankruptcy, and a sense of the city collapsing in on itself.
Such a choice is hardly a choice at all. Yet there had to be an outcome, and the one we got on Tuesday was probably the best available. We were spared—for four more years—the return of a step-grandchild of Tammany Hall. High-concept utopian schemes are not on the table. Raymond Kelly remains as police commissioner, which means that Bloomberg’s one unquestioned success—fighting crime and policing terror—continues. Bold reform of the type New York needs to reinvent itself and recharge its economy, especially in the wake of the fiscal crisis, is not on the table either, though of course neither candidate was offering anything like that. But at least we will get reasonably efficient government as something of a consolation prize.
The other upside—and it’s significant—is that Bloomberg’s mere five-point victory must be read as a rebuke to a big-money candidate who stuck around too long and threw his weight around too much. Polling showed him winning by 15 to 20 points. No one saw this narrow margin coming. Partly, it was a function of low turnout; partly, those who did turn out were angrier than any of us supposed. Bloomberg has been a steadily popular mayor for most of his administration, and his personal politics seem to fit those of the city he leads almost like a glove. But quite a few people have apparently had enough. What that bodes for the future is hard to say. Surely, though, it should cause some deep-pocketed candidates to think twice about whether and how to run for public office. That cannot be a bad effect.
All elected executives who survive this long end up as lame ducks. Bloomberg, owing to this combination victory and rebuke, will be lamer than most. That means, in all likelihood, no more crusades and no more grandiose schemes, and if he persists in proposing any, they will probably go nowhere. All he is left to do is administer the machinery of government, competently, without fanfare. He’ll do it better than Thompson would have. Under the circumstances, the city could have done worse.