New York City’s Mayor: Consultant or Politician?

Just over two months in and Bill de Blasio’s approval ratings are sinking by the day, proving that running a good campaign doesn’t mean you’ve got the chops to properly run America’s biggest city.

Pool photo by Susan Watts

Across New York City’s George Washington Bridge, a politician recently hailed as a “new national voice” has seen sky-high numbers crash with historic swiftness. Just a few months ago, Bloomberg News announced this politician was “planning to take his campaign….to an audience across the U.S.,” ready to assume a “national leadership” role in his party. Now his job approval has plunged to 39 and falling.

Yes, Mayor Bill de Blasio is in real trouble.

By comparison, the politician on the other side of the GW—Chris Christie—has a rating 16 points higher. When he left office, Mike Bloomberg, the man who was described as running New York City like a “plantation” at the de Blasio inaugural, had approval ratings of 49 percent. That’s the guy the city was supposed to be so sick of that no candidate even wanted his endorsement.

None of this should come as a surprise.

Even Bill de Blasio’s true blue liberal supporters couldn’t mask a lingering sense of unease about his election. The New York Times endorsement of de Blasio reads like the journal of a bride on the eve of an arranged marriage as she tries desperately to convince herself it’s all for the best. “Public Advocate is in many ways a negligible job, but…” The Times wrote, describing de Blasio’s previous job. “His resume… has been called scant preparation to run an enterprise of 300,000 employees and a $70 billion budget. But Mr. Bloomberg also had limited government experience...”

Oh boy. You’d have thought somebody at The Times might have read Anna Karenina.

Yes, Mike Bloomberg didn’t have a lot of government experience, but the man had run major enterprises. He had grown a business from scratch into a modern empire. Sure, that takes a certain amount of luck, but it also takes vision, discipline and executive skills. Like anyone who has tested themselves in areas of tremendous responsibility, Bloomberg’s skills grew as he built his company. He got better and could present himself as a candidate with a record of significant achievement.

Bill de Blasio? He is a political operative who has never held a private sector job outside of politics. His major and defining achievement was running Hilary Clinton’s Senate Campaign in 2000. I respect that. He did a good job and it was a more difficult race than it looked after an impressive win. It’s always that way.

But having the operative skills to get elected has precious little to do with the ability to handle “the second toughest job in America.” It’s not a very complicated concept: Those good at the taking of Baghdad are probably not the best to operate the city water works.

De Blasio ran such an effective campaign for Mayor that his teenage son Dante, star of a television ad, was named “the sixth most influential teen of 2013” by Time magazine. Like me, you may have been unaware of the existence of such a list or of who made it to Number One (Lorde), but the ad captured the imagination of a city.

Now, that positive energy has been replaced with a furious battle over de Blasio’s payback to the teacher’s union who supported his candidacy: a war on charter schools. What he’s learning is that running charming ads about a 16-year-old is a lot easier than running the most ornery, complicated public school system in America.

(Related: De Blasio and the Charter School Trap)

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Campaigns reward behavior that is often death to governing’s possibilities: a ruthless focus on short-term gain with little regard for the consequences of division. It’s very difficult to see opponents as anything but obstacles to be overcome.

So when de Blasio was asked after the election about including Republicans in his Administration, it was only natural for him to laugh it off: “Let’s don’t get crazy about this diversity idea.” To him it was as nuts as inviting the other side into your campaign war room. Why would you do that?

Nothing in politics tests as consistently well as increasing taxes on the “very rich.” For a campaign guy like de Blasio, it was a successful no brainer to run on raising taxes for those who make over $500,000, largely to fund pre-school education. “Raising taxes on the rich makes our commitment to our kids more than just words. It makes that commitment REAL,” de Blasio thundered in the campaign. Voters—at least a lot of voters—loved it.

So it must have come as a real shock to the new mayor that liberals like Senator Chuck Schumer wouldn’t endorse his plan. Governor Andrew Cuomo is even attacking it—this is sweet—as a plan that would create “repugnant inequality” across the state.

Welcome to the NFL.

Can Mayor de Blasio recover? Of course. But he’s a cautionary tale in the dangers of electing those to executive positions whose greatest skills are elections. There is another one in Chicago, where former campaign operative Rahm Emanuel has done a terrible job dealing with Chicago’s gun violence and was vacationing in sunny Indonesia during a Chicago blizzard. Emanuel’s stints in Congress and in the White House have probably better equipped him to adapt, but so far no one is arguing that he’s a man better at governing than campaigning.

A couple of months ago Bill de Blasio was being hailed as the progressive face of America. His supporters now have reason to fear that’s true.