How the Clinton Camp Brushed Off Bill de Blasio and His Progressive Advocacy

How the Clinton Camp Brushed Off Bill de Blasio and His Progressive Advocacy

How the Clinton Camp Brushed Off Bill de Blasio and His Progressive Advocacy

E-mails reveal the response to the mayor’s prodding to focus on inequality and economic fairness was a dismissive: “Should we care about this?”


Fifty years ago, New York City had a dynamic new mayor who captured the imagination of the nation with his advocacy for a more humane, inclusive, and just society. He was also a Republican, and smart Republicans were glad of that. John Lindsay was more liberal than most of the leaders of his party, but Richard Nixon and those around him took notice of the mayor’s appeal. So much so that Lindsay’s name was much discussed as a potential running mate for Nixon.1

Lindsay did not end up on the Republican ticket in 1968—though, after a party switch, he bid four years later for the top spot on the Democratic line. But, in 1968, Lindsay was a very big deal among Republicans who recognized that the “cool mayor” might expand the party’s appeal to younger voters and people of color. As the Republican National Convention approached, Lindsay appeared on the cover of Life magazine, which speculated about his growing influence, while columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak explained that the mayor’s support would be essential for Republican nominee Richard Nixon. Nixon recognized as much; he consulted frequently with Lindsay and his team handed the New Yorker two prime-time speaking slots that gave the mayor “an opportunity to speak to 20,000 conventioneers and 60 million viewers and to pressure Nixon and [Spiro] Agnew” on, among other things, the need for “a vigorous effort to transform our cities into centers of opportunity and progress.”2

Fast forward to 2016. New York City again has a dynamic mayor who has captured the imagination of the nation with his advocacy for a more humane, inclusive, and just society. But that’s where the comparison ends. This mayor is a Democrat. Bill de Blasio was not talked up as a vice presidential prospect. And at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he spoke at 5:30 pm, a time that Politico described as “far from prime-time.”3

While his billionaire predecessor former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg would address the convention later in a key speaking slot, the current mayor of the nation’s most populous city was described as “dwelling in the side lane.” It wasn’t that de Blasio had nothing to say. As a New Yorker who knew a thing or two about Donald Trump, the mayor ripped into the Republican presidential nominee as “the very definition of the predator class.” Anticipating the scandals that would eventually derail Trump, de Blasio declared, “He’s degraded women to make himself feel big while showing us the truly little man that he is.”4

Why wasn’t Bill de Blasio, as the mayor of the nation’s largest city, an essential spokesperson for urban America and a progressive with credibility on the Elizabeth Warren/Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic party, a featured speaker at the convention of his party? Why was his earlier offer to serve as a surrogate for Clinton in key caucus and primary states turned down?5

It will be noted that Bill de Blasio did not make an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton, indicating in April of 2015 that he was waiting “like a lot of people in this country…to see a vision” from the candidate whose 2000 US Senate bid he had managed. But the mayor went out of his way to maintain lines of communication with Clinton aides. And he came on board reasonably quickly, endorsing Clinton by October—months before the primary season began. He even went on MSNBC’s Morning Joe to argue that she was uniquely prepared to address the economic issues that concerned him.6

So what was the problem?7

We get some answers from the release by WikiLeaks of e-mails exchanged by top Clinton campaign aides and allies. It turns out that Mayor de Blasio tried to connect with what would become the Clinton campaign as early as 2014. He sought to prod the campaign’s agenda in a progressive direction and proposed to help the candidate connect with grassroots Democrats who might be wary of Clinton’s centrist record.8

“He wants to be seen as the loudest progressive voice for her and in order to do that he needs access,” Clinton aide Huma Abedin explained in a November 2014 e-mail to the Clinton team. “He has recently asked to have increased direct access to her so he can tell his progressive partners what she thinks about issues important to them.”9

That’s precisely the sort of request that mayors of New York City have historically made of presidential contenders. And presidential campaigns have recognized the wisdom of maintaining close contact with mayors, even mayors who might challenge candidates and campaigns to consider new issues and new political approaches. Fiorello La Guardia, who was elected and reelected on the Republican and American Labor Party lines, maintained a mutually beneficial political relationship with Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s. John Kennedy cultivated a relationship with Robert Wagner in the early 1960s. And, yes, Richard Nixon forged a complex relationship with Lindsay that lasted until the pair split following the mayor’s defeat in the 1969 New York Republican primary.10

So there was plenty of precedent for the access that Bill de Blasio sought.11

But instead of access, the mayor got the cold shoulder.12

So cold that, at one point when Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook was forwarded a note about de Blasio complimenting a speech by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Mook replied: “Wow. What a terrorist.”13

Early in 2015, when de Blasio contacted the campaign about his Progressive Agenda plan “to organize progressives nationally to take on income inequality,” he wrote: “I believe you will agree with much of this content. Please let me know if you want to discuss.”14

The e-mail response from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta was: “Should we care about this?”15

“I’m not sweating it,” replied Neera Tanden, the president and chief executive of the Center for American Progress, who explained to Podesta, “Politically, we are not getting any pressure to join this from our end.”16

As it turned out, they should have cared. The Progressive Agenda attracted endorsements from mayors, members of Congress, and union leaders, as well as favorable reviews from progressive think tanks, economists, and magazines like The Nation.17

At the same time, the Democratic nomination challenge mounted by Bernie Sanders, which Clinton and her aides initially dismissed, would gain tremendous traction because of its focus on income inequality and the need for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Even after she secured her party’s nomination, Clinton struggled to attract support from young voters who had embraced the Sanders challenge because of its progressive populist focus on an the sort of economic justice agenda that de Blasio wanted to discuss with the candidate as early as 2014.18

The mayor, like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, recognized as the 2016 campaign was just getting started that a new politics was emerging, and that voters were no longer satisfied with centrist triangulation, race-to-the-bottom trade deals and politicians who embraced corrupt austerity agendas. Yet, when de Blasio was trying to raise the central issue of inequality, the Clinton campaign brushed the mayor and his Progressive Agenda aside. Indeed, even after the mayor endorsed Clinton, the campaign kept brushing him off—making little note of the actual endorsement, disregarding his offer to serve as a surrogate, rejecting invitations to a forum he tried to organize on income inequality, giving him an afternoon speaking slot far from the action at the Democratic National Convention.19

The trove of e-mails released by WikiLeaks offers a good many insights into how the Clinton campaign misinterpreted and mangled the politics of the 2016 race. The Clinton people do not like these revelations, for obvious reasons. But, instead of merely complaining about hacking, the Clinton team would be wise to reflect on the ways in which they insulated themselves from the ideas and insights that would eventually shape the 2016 race.20

When the mayor of the nation’s largest city—a progressive Democrat, a leading voice on urban policy, a pioneering advocate for focusing on income inequality—wanted to open precisely the right discussion about the 2016 campaign, they dismissed his wise counsel.21

This isn’t about personalities or strategies. This is about ideas and issues that matter. And this is about recognizing that expanding the circle, opening the discussion, and inviting in those who might prod or challenge a campaign is not dangerous. It’s smart politics.22

Richard Nixon and his aides may not have liked or agreed with John Lindsay. But they knew as the 1968 race heated up that they needed to hear Lindsay out, and that they would benefit by giving Lindsay access and a platform to address the nation. That was smart politics.23

Hillary Clinton and her aides did not seem to know as the 2016 race heated up that they needed to talk to Bill de Blasio, and that they would benefit by giving de Blasio access and a platform to address the nation. That was not smart politics.24

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