Forty years ago, when Republicans suffered their worst presidential election defeat of the post-World War II era, roughly 800,000 New Yorkers voted for the party’s nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.
Four years ago, when Republicans secured the White House in one of the closest presidential elections in the nation’s history, roughly 300,000 New Yorkers voted for the party’s nominee, Texas Governor George W. Bush.
Like most urban areas, New York City has become dramatically more Democratic in recent decades. Yet, unlike Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and so many other American cities, New York still elects Republicans to serve as mayor. Of the last six mayors of New York City, three have been elected as Republicans: John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani and the current occupant of City Hall, Mike Bloomberg. And it should be remembered that the man many believe to have been the city’s greatest mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, was also affiliated with the Grand Old Party.
To be sure, New York Republicans are a different breed from, say, Texas Republicans. They get elected by arguing that they will manage the city more competently, not that they will turn it into Houston on the Hudson. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a wealthy publisher who was a generous contributor to Democratic campaigns before he bought the Republican nomination and was elected mayor in 2001, backs abortion rights, gay rights and new taxes. And he has grudgingly welcomed anti-Bush protesters to the city.
But Bloomberg, like Giuliani before him, is a tepid version of the New York Republicans of old. Perhaps by the Republican standards of today, he can still be called a “liberal.” But he is no fighting liberal, as has been evident in the weeks leading up to the second Bush coronation.
Instead of challenging conservative orthodoxies — on everything from the right to dissent to the right to choose — Bloomberg has placated the Bush administration and its rightwing allies in the leadership of what was once a Grand Old Party.
Don’t expect any fireworks today, when Bloomberg delivers a perfunctory welcome to the Republican National Convention delegates who are gathering in the city for the first time in the party’s 150-year history.
At the most scripted convention in the history of American politics, Bloomberg will, like every other speaker this week, color within the lines drawn by the Bush-Cheney ’04 reelection campaign — which has effectively remade the party in its image. In so doing, Bloomberg will abandon the historic responsibility of New York Republicans, which was to pull a kicking and screaming Republican Party as far to the left as politically possible.
One of the great tragedies of the contemporary Republican Party is that what is left of its liberal wing is so wimped out as to be completely inconsequential.
Once upon a time, Republican mayors of New York would have picked up on the themes of the anti-war and anti-corporate protests that are filling this city’s streets this week.
Had La Guardia been asked to welcome a Republican National Convention to New York City, he would never have agreed to read from the script distributed by the Tories who have taken charge of the party. He would have torn the script up and told the party to defend the interests of the poor against the rich, of labor unions against business interests, of consumers against corporations.
Lindsay would have lectured the delegates from Idaho and Iowa about the importance of funding urban programs. The passionate defender of civil liberties — who Nat Hentoff said “wielded the Bill of Rights against its enemies” — would not have hesitated to condemn the Patriot Act. And, in a time of illicit and ill-advised warmaking, he would have suggested that solutions to problems at home could be found by redirecting U.S. policies abroad.
That’s exactly what Lindsay did in 1968, when he told the Republican Party’s platform committee that, “The course we have been following in Vietnam, I submit, has not been one of a great nation.” Lindsay told fellow Republicans that staying the course in Vietnam would prevent the United States from becoming a great nation. “For the truth, I’m afraid, is that we cannot achieve either the cities or the society we would like as long as we continue the war in Vietnam,” the mayor explained. “We cannot spend more than $24 billion a year in Vietnam and still rebuild our cities. We cannot speak of non-violence at home when we are displacing, maiming, and killing thousands of Asians for the professed purpose of protecting the peace in a land half way across the world.”
Four decades later, the Republican Party could stand to hear the mayor of New York deliver a similar message — with only the name Iraq replacing that of Vietnam. Unfortunately, while New York has a Republican mayor, it does not have a La Guardia or a Lindsay.