For Local Politics

Mike Tomasky on the rise of Michael Bloomberg and the fall of the New York City Democratic Party:

I covered its demise as well as Bloomberg’s ascent. The former was far more gruesome to watch. In a city that’s six-to-one Democratic in voter enrolment, there isn’t really a plausible mayor among the dozens of elected Democrats who represent the city or some portion of it at the federal, state and local levels.

In the cartoon-version of the local party’s demise, the bore is chattering on not about his Bordeaux, but about a glorious past that no one remembers or cares about anymore, and a set of secondary issues aimed more at clubhouse job-seekers than regular people.

New Yorkers’ Democratic-ness is all about national politics. It’s about supporting candidates like Barack Obama and opposing people like Sarah Palin. But locally, New Yorkers believe in the old adage about there being no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. They want what works, and they suspect that the local Democratic party can’t and won’t.

The problem with the way we do things in our urban politics is that it is largely true that there’s no Democratic or Republican way to cope with municipal issues, but it’s not true that municipal governance is all about non-ideological managerial competence. Rather, our political parties are organized around systematic ideological disagreements about the most important issues in federal politics. But lots of issues that are extremely important in city politics aren’t that important in federal politics.


For example, the federal role in K-12 education is rather modest so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even in these days of heightened polarization the debate about K-12 education policy doesn’t break down along party lines. And of the big municipal issues, education is probably the most federalized one. One of the biggest political fights of the Bloomberg years has been about congestion pricing, which is very marginal to federal political debates. By contrast, Rudy Giuliani’s terrifying opinions about foreign policy and national security had basically nothing to do with his job as Mayor of New York City. “The budget” is important at both a federal and a municipal level, but what constitutes good budgetary policies at the two levels if very different.

In Canada, the political parties that contest federal elections are basically separate from the parties that contest provincial elections. This seems like a very sensible arrangement — it lets people have strong partisan identities at different levels in a way that acknowledges that there are very different ideological cleavages when you’re talking about governments with different kind of responsibilities.