crossing the aisle

Empire Burlesque Giuliani and what might have been

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When New York City Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani crossed party lines to endorse Governor Mario Cuomo on October 24, he romanced panicky liberal Democrats into denial both about Cuomo's senescence and about the disaffection of moderate Democrats. But when State Senator George Pataki beat Cuomo 49 percent to 45 percent on Election Day, finishing off not only Cuomo but also Giuliani's clout with the GOP, the question was obvious: Why hadn't Giuliani simply thrown his arm around Pataki, who had more in common with him politically than do either the grandiloquent Cuomo or the fresh crop of wild-eyed congressional Newtoids? Had Giuliani backed Pataki, he'd have won by even more. The mayor and the city would be sitting pretty instead of ducking Republican wrath. A centrist "reinvention" of the New York welfare state would have much brighter prospects than it has had since the 1970s.

Yet Giuliani hadn't merely endorsed Cuomo; he'd responded to the Republican outrage over his endorsement by running around the state in the governor's behalf. Giuliani depicted Pataki, a mild-mannered Yalie and Columbia Law School graduate, almost as if he were one of the Wall Street or Mafia deal-makers he'd bagged as U.S. Attorney during the 1980s.

One reason for this venom, supporters confided, was that Giuliani wanted to ruin Pataki's campaign patron and his own political nemesis, Senator Alfonse D'Amato. Yet Giuliani's battle with D'Amato raised as many questions about his motives as it seemed to answer. As the Daily News's Michael Goodwin noted, Giuliani hadn't always opposed "Senator Shakedown"; as U.S. Attorney, he'd boosted D'Amato's 1986 re-election by joining him at a media-heavy police drug buy in Harlem. In 1992 he'd endorsed D'Amato again, even though they were by then estranged. (Giuliani had prosecuted some of the senator's cronies and D'Amato had put up billionaire Ronald Lauder against him in the 1989 Republican mayoral primary.)

Another good reasonthe one Giuliani offered the publicwas that Pataki's vow to cut state taxes by 25 percent would decimate services the city was already cutting and force Giuliani to raise local property taxes. Pataki countered that Giuliani and Cuomo had struck a deal for more state aid. Others suggested that Giuliani had simply converted to Cuomoism: "If a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged," shrugged one wag, "a liberal is a conservative who's been elected mayor of New York." Most likely, Giuliani was investing in his own electoral stock as a dragon-slayer above partisan politics.

At first, the endorsement seemed to pay off. Cuomo surged ahead in the polls. The New York Times had a five-page news and editorial orgasm over Giuliani, whom it had dismissed as a "Wonder Bread Son of the '50s" and apostle of "civic Reaganism," but now heralded as a transpartisan hero who "stands very tall" in "the mold of Fiorello LaGuardia." The afterglow lasted for days, lulling liberals into the abyss that swallowed both Cuomo's welfare-state politics and Giuliani's transpartisan promise (which some had said inspired Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's nod to Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein days after).

Still, discerning New Yorkers had reason to worry about Giuliani's crusade against Pataki. Among upstate and suburban voterswho outnumber city votersthe end had come for Cuomo. In bipartisan concert with a tax-and-spend legislature, he'd made New York exhibit a for conservative Republicans: a job-hemorrhaging welfare state whose public sector employs proportionately more people than any other state's, and whose "business health" ranks forty-eighth in the nation on the seven major indices of a recent U.S. News & World Report survey. The state's debt structure is based on junk-bond financing and a soaring deficit that, Cuomo now warns, may be $4 billion.

On Election Day, the New York City turnout was swamped by that of economically stressed upstate and suburban voters. Giuliani had misread the statewide mood in part because the Times, complacent about a Cuomo victory, proved more adept at gauging the mood in Port-au-Prince than in Syracuse or Suffolk County. Cuomo misread the mood, too. As the Daily News's Frank Lombardi noted in October, Cuomo really had run for "governor of New York City," organizing his campaign explicitly and exhaustively to turn out urban black, Hispanic, gay and female supportersa fatal miscalculation. "There's much less optimism upstate about the future than there is in the city," says Representative Charles Schumer, a Brooklyn Democrat. "You have to see the empty factories in Buffalo, the laid-off workers on welfare for the first time in their lives. They're desperate and struggling."

Cuomo had styled himself the all-provident paterfamilias of what he calls "The Family of New York." But the rallying, leafleting and phone-banking by unions and Democratic county organizations failed to relieve the torpor into which Cuomo's intended beneficiaries had sunk. As Nicholas Von Hoffman wrote in The Washington Postafter watching the election in BrooklynDemocrats have forgotten how to organize those they call "`the entitled and the challenged,' the people who never speak and are ceaselessly spoken about.... As this election showed one more time, the D's have no organizational web to stay in touch with this quasi-constituency of theirs." The Democrats instead rely on surveys and on welfare and human rights lobbyists.

None of which kept New York Times reporter Todd Purdum from citing a survey to assure readers that Pataki's slogan about Cuomo"Too liberal for too long"was only half right, since the poll's respondents bemoaned Cuomo's longevity more than his liberalism. He didn't explain why the less liberal Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in office far longer than Cuomo, proved impregnable to a challenger no more or less well known than Pataki.

Voters have tired of Cuomo Democrats for two reasons. First, liberal Democrats, no less than their conservative Democratic and Republican colleagues, practice a decrepit "crony capitalism" by arranging publicly funded boondoggles for big campaign contributors. Second, they try to cover their sins by catering to "the human rights and welfare industry lobbyists," as Von Hoffman put it, who think people are liberated by hyping "multicultural" differences that are supposedly rooted in color, surname or sexual orientation.

Few Americans actually believe that, and few multicultural differences contribute anything to a vibrant civic culture or progressive politics. The race-class-gender trinity actually thwarts class politics by distracting people from their common interests. That distraction benefits corporate managers, foundation liberals, lobbyists for the social-welfare industries and the trendies who edit glossy magazines for "market niche" audiences identified by focus groups. But on November 8, moderate as well as conservative voters revolted against this system.

Newspapers such as the Times misunderstood the implications of all this during the campaign because they, like Cuomo, had come to embrace and embody the multicultural agenda in their own realms. Nowhere was that more evident in the campaign than on the editorial and op-ed pages, where, in the final week before the election, columnists Frank Rich and Anna Quindlen were preoccupied with a book on the Clarence Thomas hearings that, Rich predicted, would "make people's blood boil." It was more important to them to vindicate Hill's supporters than to write about the blood that was boiling upstate. After it boiled over on Election Day, Quindlen wrote Cuomo an elegy. A Times profile of Pataki adapted the old Giuliani "Wonder Bread" metaphor to the governor-elect, dubbing him "Mr. Plain Vanilla."

Had Wonder Bread given Plain Vanilla at least a pro forma endorsement, his beleaguered city would now face the prospect of partisan preferment rather than punishment from Albany and Washington. The city would be able to hope for a $100 million economic boost from the 1996 Republican National Convention and a gravy train from new Senate Banking Committee Chairman D'Amato. Far more important would be the hope that a vigorous, brainy Giuliani-Pataki team could reinvent New York's city and state governments, now locked together in a fiscal free-fall. The only way to stop that free-fall is to reconfigure both of these interdependent colossi at the same time, changing what they do and deliver. That will take cooperation between the mayor and the governor that transcends both partisanship and ideology.

If Democrats still represented a vibrant, class-based politics, they and the country might be fit for the task. Instead, in thrall to Cuomo's and the Times's vague notions, they've defaulted to state Republicans, who may not be up to the task at all. Giuliani and Pataki do have the ability, but the vengeful D'Amato looms large: three days after the election, Pataki had yet to return one of Giuliani's several congratulatory, conciliatory calls. When they do finally meet on the political terrain, ravaged as much by liberal myopia as by right-wing rage, New York's Republican mayor and Republican governor will probably look at each other and ask, "Now what?"

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