It was, perhaps only in retrospect, a seminal moment.
Eight years ago this week, Bill de Blasio was ushered into power in New York. A committed left-winger, an actual ex-Sandinista, the man born Warren Wilhelm, Jr., was a man seemingly out of the fever dream of a commenter on TownHall.com, that Tea Party throwback…the Democrats were, indeed, communists in all but name.
That de Blasio had stunningly cleared the Democratic field—after the collapse of the political career of Anthony Weiner and the wet noodle campaign of Christine Quinn, then-speaker of the New York City Council—contributed to an atmosphere of dramatic, left-wing populist ascension. I would be soon matched in the coming years, by the rise of Syriza in Greece and the success of Bernie Sanders in the States (the matching right-wing populist flavor was not yet as clear, but would soon be demonstrated by the rise of India’s Narendra Modi, Brexit, and the election you-know-who).
Michael Anton reminded us last week, in a fabulous dispatch on the decline of American cities for First Things, of the sentiment among skeptics back then when de Blasio got in. “I predicted imminent mayhem. That turned out to be wrong.” However, he added, “one could sense subtle changes almost instantly. The police pulled back—either under orders, or intuiting that active enforcement would no longer be backed by City Hall. Order was upheld less, anti-social types took more liberties on the streets, and one began to anticipate, on the subways, that, sooner or later, ‘you were gonna have a problem.'”
The actual socialists had been optimistic, calling the new mayor no hardliner but, indeed, “teachable.” A report in Jacobin magazine read: “A rising tide of progressive sentiment in New York City led to his election, but after a half-decade of disappointments from President Obama and the fresh memory of a major protest movement in [Occupy Wall Street], the Left should feel more free to voice criticism.” By 2020, after de Blasio had mounted a buffoonish volley at the White House, the outlet denounced him as a failure, as did seemingly most leading leftists, proving the maxim once again that true socialism had never been attempted.
But the provocative appearance of Bill and Hillary Clinton at de Blasio’s inauguration would be a harbinger of what was to come for Democratic politics: socialists in the streets, neoliberals in the sheets. Put aside the fact team Clinton was in the midst of (successfully) knifing then-Vice President Joe Biden out of the nomination, while ignoring the rise of figures such as Sanders (who had mulled a 2012 primary challenge of Barack Obama, the first black president, evidence enough of his hardline convictions and disguised ambition).
That the 42nd president agreed to preside over the inauguration of a man clearly to his left (and for a job he once considered running for) showed the Arkansan-cum-New Yorker couple’s nose for the future, and it presaged the corporate takeover of America's left wing.
The arrangement devolved later on, with de Blasio declining to endorse Clinton early on (though, perhaps critically, also declining to endorse Biden as he was mulling a run, leaked emails showed). After Clinton lost the 2016 election, and as the #MeToo movement built, the New York mayor said that President Bill Clinton would have had to resign over Monica Lewinsky if the event had happened in the modern era.
As de Blasio left the scene over the weekend (not before, hilariously, outlasting his old rival, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo), and, presumably, now that the elder Clintons have also left the stage, it’s easy to write off the last inauguration of a fresh occupant of Gracie Mansion. But de Blasio, with his handsome, biracial family (his African-American wife, an ex-lesbian…at least he was a “go-getter” was the wisecrack), the man surely cut the picture of “woke” before the true moment of “woke.”
Tacitly aligned with the signature political family of untrammeled corporate authority, their partnership was a sign of things to come. Now de Blasio leaves office as the city takes down statues of Thomas Jefferson, and if de Blasio was really going to come at (mostly progressive) big money, which he didn’t, it’s hard to even know where would have started, as Times Square now has been partially handed over to criminals, and a lot of the big sharks don’t even show their face in town anymore in the new age of remote work.
Eric Adams, now mayor, says he’s different.
Amid Omicron, which has battered the Northeast from Beantown to Northwest D.C, there was no inauguration celebration for the new mayor. Instead, Adams was ushered into power just after the ball dropped on Saturday morning. Adams, an ex-cop, says crime is top of mind, and his early hours in power have included stunts like personally reporting hooligans to the police.
Adams’ Twitter presence makes clear a clean break with de Blasio.
“Content posted between January 1, 2014, and December 31, 2021, represents the views and policies of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration,” Mayor Adams posted. “Content posted from January 1, 2022, forward represents the views of policies of Mayor Eric Adams and his administration.”
It was an arguably gratuitous maneuver, but it was vintage Adams.
Among those who had wanted a more sharply conservative turn in the city, Adams had not been the first choice during last year’s Democratic primary. Indeed, Orthodox Jews and East Asian American voters tended to favor Andrew Yang in the election; both demographics have been the victims of clearly targeted racial attacks in the city in recent years. And some veterans of the city’s last real crime wars, the 1990s, remember the younger Adams, who is black, as something of a “race hustler.” This uncomfortable stuff is relevant because the last black mayor, David Dinkins, was arguably sunk by mishandling such sensitive matters, most famously the Crown Heights riots.
When Adams was backing Dinkins in the 1993 race, race didn’t exactly not seem to top of mind for the young progressive police officer, and he made comments foreshadowing the comeback of anti-miscegenation sentiments in the body politic, this time from the left. Adams attacked the running mate of future New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on ghastly grounds. “Mr. Adams said that if [Herman] Badillo were truly concerned about the Hispanic community, he would have married a Hispanic woman,” the New York Times reported at the time. “Mr. Badillo is Puerto Rican and his wife is Jewish.”
But time has done its thing and quite notably none of that kind of nonsense was on display from Mr. Adams’ campaign for mayor.
Adams is still clearly kind of wacky: from his weird, random flair for a lot of foreign travel (he was in Ghana last year even as mayor-elect, for some reason), to dubiously residing in New Jersey, to seemingly really liking Republicans these days, despite not being one (he dined with billionaire kingpin John Castimadis and Fox News’s Bo Dietl right after his summer primary triumph).
But Adams has hired a tough-minded cat’s paw, the veteran New York fixer Frank Carrone, as his chief of staff, in a first sign of seriousness.
It’s an insider-y pick, sure, but it appears to be an improvement on the sprawling, comical matrix of deputy mayors Dinkins employed to get things done, or not. This cadre included famed inside man Bill Lynch, who went way back with Dinkins, including in his preceding post as Manhattan bureau president. Carrone is a Brooklynite like Adams, and he is likewise an ex-bureau president. But in an identity-obsessed Democratic Party, if not America, Carrone as the top gun will subtly dispel early anxieties about Adams as a potential factional black mayor.
African Americans are certainly Adams’ political base, so governing coldly in that direction would be cynical, but hardly irrational.
But Adams’ clear black identity is this strange, double-edged sword for the Democratic establishment. Bluntly, it has given Adams an unspoken, Nixon-goes-to-China ability to get tough on crime in the early going. This is not exactly unprecedented elsewhere, of course: witness the African American mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, cracking down in the benighted Tenderloin District. Strikingly, the loudest opponents of a course correction in the USA—from S.F.’s Chesa Boudin to Philly’s Larry Krasner—are often white. True to form: Krasner has inspired criticism in recent days from ex-mayor Michael Nutter, an African American.
These racial dynamics are uncomfortable, but unfortunately undeniable. TAC founding editor Scott McConnell noted in a recent piece that it was often writers and politicians from then-”ethnic” backgrounds—often working class Jews and Italians—that formed the basis of the first neoconservative wave that saved America’s cities (the second wave was far less successful in the second Iraq War).
Perhaps something is at hand again in America: with Hispanics clearly trending red, and African Americans views on crime and even “Black Lives Matter” vs. “All Lives Matter” are hardly a monolith, to the dismay of, yes, often-white liberal media elites. If Adams is one of persuasion, his vanquished Republican opponent, longtime vigilante crime fighter Curtis Silwa (head of a sort of subway “League of Shadows”) is the exaggerated version of that tendency.
Zeitgeists happen. Witness presidential politics. Bush v. Gore in 2000 was a pitched battle of two mediocre sons of old American political families… Bush v. Kerry in 2004 was a contest between two Bonesmen… Obama v. McCain in 2008 was a showdown between different critics of Bush’s prosecution of the Iraq War… Obama v. Romney in 2012 was a showdown between the liberal, lawyerly wing of the globalist moment, and the more conservative, management consultant wing… Trump v. Clinton in 2016 was a duel between two Manhattan Machiavellians… and Biden v. Trump in 2020 was a choice between two men critics assured us would never be president.
The energy is clearly there for Adams; it’s a matter of how he channels it.
Those of unsettled mind on Mayor Adams see a potential comparison not with Dinkins, probably more similar to de Blasio, but with a figure from a decade further back, the three-term Ed Koch in the later 1970s and through the 1980s. “A promising mayor who inherited a city in shambles,” RealClearPolitics editor Charles McElwee, formerly of City Journal, told me. “[Koch] only compounded the situation with mayoral tumult and mismanagement by his third term. The difference: the city was dangerous in 1978-1989 but there was cultural vibrancy, affordability—and commuters.”
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