A True “Rockefeller Republican” (Musings on Term Limits, Part One)

Larry Littlefield: Let's Hear From You On Something Else. That national election is over.

Gatemouth: Not reallyLarry, by all logic, you would be right and this race would be over. But, have you noticed that Obama is black? And really, Larry, do you think “Room 8” really needs one more article about term limits?

Larry: Ah, But Yours Wouldn't Be Just "One More Article"

The recent vote to modify the term limits provisions of our City Charter has resulted in an orgy of hypocrisy virtually unprecedented in our City politics, and that’s saying a lot. There’s so much of it, in fact, that it is going to require at least two parts for my autopsy.

Unlike virtually everyone else who’s blogged on this issue, I find the actions of many of those who’ve opposed the extension at least as eye-poppingly hilarious as the actions of those who’ve supported it, and probably more so. And, as I’ll explain in Part Two, in the end, I think the whole sordid spectacle makes a great case why term limits are a bad idea.

Nonetheless, one cannot ignore the five hundred pound gorilla behind the curtain.

In many ways, Michael Bloomberg’s not been a bad Mayor. A sort of Rudy Giuliani with a human face, Bloomberg has admirably succeeded in depolarizing our body politic. With Rudy came loud morality lessons and bloviating bluster, but the main point underlying the practice of governance by these two Mayors is essentially the same: their own personal centrality; all the rest is commentary. The main difference is that with Giuliani you got the commentary, and with Bloomberg, you don’t, something for which I am extremely thankful.

Nonetheless, the essential similarity of the men is best expressed by their response to a national crisis with an especially bad impact upon the City. At such a point in time, both men came up with the a same answer: “we are a polity not of laws, but of men, and the normal procedures which can and should apply to mere mortals cannot act as obstacles to destiny.”

What was called for was nothing less than a reverse Bill of Attainder.

In Rudy’s case, the response was an attempt at a one-time (or so he said) declaration of Martial Law, followed by a bloodless (or so he said) Coup D’etat.

In Bloomie’s case, the response is a Charter change of our two-term limit on elected official tenure to three, with a nod and wink implying that this will be a one-time only emergency measure to be subsequently remedied by a Charter Commission headed by that great pitch-fork wielding populist, Ron Lauder, which will declare Mike Bloomberg Mayor-For-Life, but will allow City Council members one six week term, followed by life-time incarceration at Riker’s Island and subsequent interment in an unmarked grave at Hart (the Borough Presidencies and Public Advocate to be abolished and the Comptroller depoliticized by making his appointment Mayoral).

Yes, sayeth the tongue-clucking supporters, such measure are regrettable, but in this time of Crisis, only Michael Bloomberg has the knowledge (of both government and the economy), integrity and insulation from political pressures by the special interests and (shhh!) the public necessary to save our City; not to mention the fiscal conservatism necessary for tough times.

Never mind that that Bloomberg-style governance and “fiscal conservatism,” as evidenced most recently in the term limits fight, seems mostly a matter of using the budget as a political weapon to exert political leverage (on elected officials, “not-for-profits“, and others) with the Mayor’s personal taxpayer-funded slush fund (and the Council’s own taxpayer-funded slush fund, which the Mayor pretty much wields by proxy) almost irrelevant, because, in practice, the entire City Budget is a Bloomberg slush fund, when necessity so dictates (and often when it does not).

Bloomberg-style reform has brought an end to the disgraceful spectacle of politicians held captive by special interests, replacing it with the inspiring spectacle of special interests being held captive by one particular politician.

And, never mind that the economic crisis we are suffering is mostly the result of policies enacted by candidates Mike Bloomberg supported with both his endorsement and his extremely large check book, as well as the checkbooks of those of others he leverages at will.

Because this is about something much bigger than that, right?

Actually, Bloomberg is hardly a figure of such inspirational power that the City cannot psychologically deal with his absence. In fact, the almost total lack of passion he inspires seems his greatest virtue. Somewhere the data exists, but remains un-computed, concerning the ultimate Bloomberg cross-tab; I’m betting that the polling from the last Mayoral election reveals that Bloomberg received the overwhelming majority of votes of New Yorkers who consider him an inferior Mayor to Giuliani, while Freddy Ferrer took a slight majority among those who preferred Bloomberg to Rudy.

But let’s not kid ourselves here; whatever his party enrollment this week, Bloomberg is a “Rockefeller Republican.” I know that, in the context of our current national politics, such a term sounds benign, if not a little enticing, but I use the term in every sense of the word.

Robert Caro noted Rockefeller’s “serene sense that because his motives are pure, his decisions are right.” Theodore White called it “a strange pietistic sense of responsibility…He was rough, his enemies called him quite simply the most ruthless man in politics. But what in other men would be simple arrogance was in Rockefeller the direct and abrupt expression of motives which, since he knew them to be good, he expected all other men to accept as good also.” White also noted, “In the Empire State, Nelson Rockefeller was beholden to no one; no crevice of weakness or obligation could be found…”

As Russell Hemenway once said, “People will think someday it was an exaggeration to say Nelson Rockefeller owned New York, but he owned the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. You simply could not touch the man in New York.”

Being parsimonious, Bloomberg does not own our parties, but it seems quite clear that he has them on a long-term lease. More importantly, he appears to have acquired a life estate in the fourth estate as well. There is no neutral principle elucidated by a NYC Editorial Board, left, right or centrist, which does not bow before the majesty of Michael Bloomberg.

Even those elected officials inclined to tell Bloomberg that there is nothing he can buy them that they would want, can be answered, Rockefeller style, by something he can buy them that they that don’t want: A PRIMARY (or, in the case of term limits, the opportunity to be allowed to have a primary).

Message To Shelly Silver from the Mayor: "Marty Connor died for your sins."

For, like Rockefeller, the slush funds of governance are but one tool, among many, which Bloomberg wields. Being parsimonious, the Mayor much prefers spending your dollars to spending his own, but campaign contributions, those of his accountant and other friends, independent expenditures and charitable donations, as well as other sources which one can only imagine, can all be called into play at will, and all are.

The results are a mostly benign dictatorship, but one which often leaves a person in need of a shower. Take school governance, a centerpiece of the Mayor’s accomplishments.

As I’ve noted previously, the theory behind Mayoral Control of the Schools seems unassailable—put the power in one place and everyone knows who to blame. And to some extent, the theory has been vindicated–every public school parent I know looks at the problems of the system, both those which are long term, and those recently created by Mr. Bloomberg’s “innovations”, and blames Mr. Bloomberg (not always fairly). By that measure, Mayoral Control has been a tremendous success.

The problem with this new accountability is that there is no way to hold Mr. Bloomberg accountable, except at the ballot box, but term limits meant we couldn’t punish him; now with their repeal, Bloomberg's unlimited personal funds virtually guarantee that he cannot be voted out of office, and thus still cannot be punished; so endeth accountability at the ballot box.

More importantly, the law creating Mayoral Control leaves virtually no check or balance that might cloud our ability to know who’s responsible.

Under the old, evil, discredited Mid-Eastern bazaar which mayoral control replaced, really concerned parents could usually find someone to talk to. Now they have "parent coordinators," who know nothing and tell less. Bloomberg seems to believe the schools, like the rest of his administration, should give out information on a need to know basis, and that no one needs to know. It is as if there were an "Official Secrets Act" designed to protect officials rather than secrets.

Under the old system, parents dealing with the schools were often forced to undertake intrigues that would have shamed the Borgias, trying to find someone receptive to a little baksheesh, or, more likely, political pressure. Under the old system, the well-connected and the persistent were served, while others suffered. Now, under Bloomberg, this inherent inequality has been replaced by a classless society where all are equal (and equally baffled and disenfranchised.)

Under Bloomberg's reform, there is no one to deal with–corrupt or otherwise–instead, all that is offered to those with an issue is a brick wall to knock one's head against.

I give as just one example the issue of school variances. Under the old system, in the matter of where your child went to school, geography was not quite destiny. Variances seemed obtainable from a thousand points of darkness in an unspeakably suspect system which operated as an open secret and often led through an elected official.

Under the new system, that’s all changed. Call anyone in the system and they will deny variances exist, at least at any school where someone might want one. Call an elected official and they will tell you that no one at Tweed will return their calls.

And yet, low and behold, variances are given out, at some of the City's most desirable school, sometimes even in schools which cannot even service all the children in their own catchment areas. Where do these variances come from?

No one knows, but, as in the 19th Century, all roads seem to lead to Tweed.

The open secret has now become a closed secret. There is no process; there is no criteria; there is not even an acknowledgment that the phenomena exists. Politicians have been eliminated from the process, but not politics.

It‘s a change, but I’m not sure it is an improvement; but, as became clear in the vote on term limits, it seems a replica in miniature of the entire city government.

Even if the results of all such governance produced far better results than they do (and let’s not kid ourselves, some of the results, in some areas, are pretty damned good), the substitution of one man in a room for some sort of governing philosophy would still be questionable as long-term policy.

And yet, it is possible for us to do worse. Surely, as I was reminded watching the Keynote Speech at the Republican National Convention, we already have in recent memory.

So here’s my Modest Proposal.

Mike, run again; I may even vote for you. But here’s the catch.

Limit your expenditures to the maximum a candidate receiving Public Financing could spend in the race, and no more. To make it more enticing, find a way to finance a nuisance primary in every party whose nomination you seek to contest, so that you can max out there as well. Now, contest the race on that relatively level playing field.

I know you are not obligated to do so legally, since, in the name of free (talk about a misnomer) speech, our Constitution, in the same timeless wisdom that brought us the Electoral College and 3/5ths of a person, guarantees all citizens, be they rich or poor, the same right to spend as much of their own money as they want on their own campaigns for election to public office. I nonethless ask you to do so both because it would be good for Democracy, and good for you.  

I’m pretty certain you will win. Doing something like that might even help you win bigger. And doing it that way would magnify your mandate, perhaps even proving to the skeptical that proposals like Congestion Pricing could be sold to the general public. A Bloomberg victory fought out and won on a relatively level playing field would be hard to dismiss as a mere matter of dollars and cents. It would get you respect that was earned rather than bought.  

All we are saying is Give Democracy a Chance.