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Label Inflation in the NYC Mayoral Race | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Label Inflation in the NYC Mayoral Race


Bill de Blasio speaks with potential voters on July 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times, wrote an op-ed today saying he found it “surprising” that the Democrat candidate for NYC mayor, might not be a kumbaya liberal after all. After weeks of being called a communist, it’s almost refreshing that Bill de Blasio is now being hit with only dull and tiresome stereotypes.

“I was struck,” Keller writes of de Blasio, “that his critique is not just a liberal’s reflexive disdain for a plutocrat; it is a considered analysis of the art of governing.” After damning de Blasio with faint praise, Keller undamns a little:  

He’s says that people who imagine him waiting patiently for consensus to coalesce, kumbaya, will discover that he can bring down the gavel. “You delegate where you can, you build consensus where you can,” he said. “But there will be plenty of occasions where there will be no time for that option and you have to be the decision-maker and you have to be fast about it.”

“I think some people mistake the stylistic for the strategic,” de Blasio explained, as he has before when asked if he can lead a city bred on tough, bombastic and/or pushy mayors, like Koch, Giuliani, Bloomberg. “I don’t feel the need to have a brash personality.”

Certainly some of Keller’s concern is understandable: de Blasio’s Republican opponent Joe Lhota, as a former deputy mayor and head of the MTA, has more managerial chops than de Blasio, who’s focused more on political activism and community organizing both in and out of government.

But like many in the media, Keller is one of those people who repeatedly mistake the stylistic for the strategic; and his need for reassurance that a liberal can be decisive seems to stem from his own, self-admitted fear of being seen as a liberal wimp. (You might recall that Keller wrote a mini-culpa a couple years ago explaining why, when he headed up the Times, he rah-rahed the paper to support the invasion of Iraq. He and other “liberals hawks,” he wrote, “were a little drugged by testosterone. And maybe a little too pleased with ourselves for standing up to evil and defying the caricature of liberals as, to borrow a phrase from those days, brie-eating surrender monkeys.”)

De Balsio did, however, add to the label confusion himself on Friday, when he told an audience of 800 business people, “I want to pleasantly shock the room and say I am a fiscal conservative.”

After his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, jumped on that, saying, “Bill de Blasio will say anything and pander,” de Blasio tried to correct himself.  

“Look, I’m going to use the more precise phrase: I think I’m a fiscally responsible progressive,” he later explained. “If you look at the whole quote, I tried to get it right and say I’m a progressive, I’m an activist, I’m also fiscally cautious.”

Then he stated what anyone thinking outside-the-cliché should be able to grasp: “There’s no contradiction between good fiscal management and an activist government—a government that seeks to address inequality and plays a major role in addressing the problems of our time.”

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It just goes to show you: The word “liberal” may have had its manhood stolen, but the word “conservative,” which once meant cautious, prudent and traditional, has been gutted and burned. Some pundit on TV this morning said the intra-GOP fight over the government shutdown is between mainstream Republicans and “conservatives.” That, of course, is what radical right-wing extremists like to call themselves. And most of the media has kindly obliged them.

But there’s some good news on political labels today. In a piece on de Blasio’s days as an NYU student (he organized for such non-rad causes as stopping tuition hikes and getting a student on the school’s board of trustees), a New York Daily News headline used the word “activist” in a perfectly neutral and descriptive way: “Bill de Blasio’s student activist at New York University work prepared him for the world of city politics.”

This week de Blasio’s calling himself “a fiscal conservative,” last week he was defending himself against charges that he is a communist.

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