A Tale of Two Bills: Clinton vs. De Blasio

The former president and the New York mayor-elect may need one another for symbolic reasons, but their similar message mask a much deeper ideological divide.

01.05.14 10:45 AM ET

When New York City's new mayor, Bill de Blasio, took the oath of office on New Year's Day, he asked former President Bill Clinton to swear him in on the City Hall steps. On the surface, the symbolism seemed to make sense for both men.

After all, De Blasio is, in many ways, a Clinton kid. He worked in the Clinton administration as a top deputy to then-HUD Secretary and now New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. He was selected to manage Hillary Clinton's New York State Senate campaign in 2000. The Clintons now benefit from one of their own at the helm of America's largest city while some pundits argue that association with de Blasio might help Hillary fend off a primary challenge from the resurgent left-wing of her party in 2016.

But if you looked past the symbolism and actually listened to the inaugural speeches, de Blasio's swearing-in ceremony was a persistent rebuke to the centrist spirit of Clintonism. And that says a lot about the growing divisions inside the Democratic Party.

Bill Clinton brought Democrats back to power after they had lost three consecutive Presidential elections by more than 40 states by re‑centering the party. As a southern governor, he was determined to distance them from the excesses of the liberal left that had alienated the moderate majority of Americans. Clinton offered a pragmatic third way of governing, pledging to move the country “not left or right but forward.” It worked.

Bill de Blasio's political approach is dramatically different. In his inauguration speech, the first Democratic New York City mayor in 20 years committed to implementing an explicitly ideological agenda, continuing his campaign strategy of running to the left of all other candidates in the Democratic primary.

“When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it,” de Blasio thundered. “We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities”—a perhaps admirable but starkly utopian goal. He cast himself in a line of liberal leaders from the New Deal to the Great Society “who took on the elite.” This activist impulse means seeing business as an adversary rather than an ally (“We will require big developers to build more affordable housing.”) Of course, raising taxes on the rich is an immediate policy priority to fund universal pre-K, along with a nanny-state ban on Central Park carriage horses.

Tone comes from the top and the inauguration festivities featured consistent play-to-the-base appeals. One preacher at the podium described New York City as a “plantation.” Musician and civil rights legend Harry Belafonte decried “our deeply Dickensian justice system.” Race and class divisions were repeatedly invoked (“brownstones” vs. “brown skin”) while the 12-year record of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg was either ignored or attacked. Indeed, recognizing the objective if imperfect gains of the city in public safety, prosperity and quality of life over the past twenty years seemed to be deemed politically incorrect. It is an inconvenient truth that when de Blasio was last in City Hall—serving in the administration of David Dinkins—New York City averaged over 2,000 murders a year. In 2013, there were 333, while the incarceration rate also hit an all time low. Policies rather than politics led to that change.

Make no mistake: De Blasio is a talented politician, an affable, engaging, intelligent man with a beautiful bi-racial family. His biography offers a profile in contrast to the billionaire businessman Bloomberga middle class Brooklynite who has literally never worked in the private sector. He was among the first modern Democrats to seize upon the increasingly urgent issue of inequality and win executive office with it, harnessing the frustrations of the Occupy movement. That’s why his mayoralty is being seen as a national bellwether by many other self-described “progressive populists.”

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But when Bill Clinton endorsed de Blasio’s agenda, he framed it in very different terms, as one of “shared opportunities, shared prosperity, shared responsibilities.” “This inequality problem bedevils the entire country,” Clinton said. “It is not just a moral outrage it is a horrible constraint on economic growth…we cannot go forward if we don’t do it together.”

Clinton’s characteristic emphasis on unity and a growing economy was missing from the de Blasio articulation—and that reflects differences deeper than rhetoric.  

Philosophical differences and policy debates can be healthy—even and especially within parties—but the gravitational pull is for progressive populism to become the mirror image of conservative populism that they decry in the Tea Party. The play-to-the-base impulse is girded by a righteous certainty that can lead to at best impracticality and at worst absolutism. We caught a glimpse of that when Mayor-elect De Blasio half-jokingly dismissed the idea of including Republicans in his cabinet—as the previous Republican and independent mayors have done with Democrats—saying, “Let’s not get crazy about this diversity idea.”

De Blasio supporters might say that he doesn’t need to reach out after winning with 70 percent of the vote in a city that is 6-to-1 Democrat. But this stat ignores the fact that just a million people voted in a city of 8 million—a record low—meaning the vast majority of citizens did not participate in the de Blasio mandate. And as the past two decades of Republican and independent mayors show, not all New York Democrats are liberals from the activist class.

Unlike Rush Limbaugh’s opinion of President Obama, I hope Mayor De Blasio succeeds because I want New York City to succeed. But it is far from clear that mayors have the tools to “end” social and economic inequality. Instead, the fundamental job of a mayor is to be a non-ideological problem-solver and improve the quality of life for all citizens. As de Blasio’s predecessor Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia famously said “there is no Republican or Democrat way to clean the street.” Bill Clinton would agree. As for Bill de Blasio, we’ll have to wait and see.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Sunday Telegraph.