The national media are focused on the battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the so-called “soul” of the Democratic Party. This is silly: Shake a Sanders supporter long enough and she ought to be able to admit that America isn’t likely to elect as president a 73-year-old Brooklyn-born Jewish democratic socialist from Vermont. Clinton’s massive advantages in money, endorsements, name recognition, and popularity will eventually result in a landslide, irrespective of who better represents the party. What’s more, it’s an imagined argument waged over symbols rather than choices. Campaigns are about offering hypothetical solutions that will likely never be tested by reality. Contradictions and compromises are simply wished away.
In New York, however, an actual battle for the future of the party is under way, and it’s not pretty. On one side is the recently reelected governor, Andrew Cuomo. A national champion of same-sex marriage and women’s rights, Cuomo is also a darling of the superrich who has forced through fiscal and financial policies that only a hedge-fund manager (or a campaign-finance chair) could love. To wit, he has capped property taxes, slashed the corporate tax rate, created tax-free zones for start-ups, and extracted concessions on wages and benefits from the state’s largest public-sector union—and that’s just for starters. If the future belongs to Cuomo, then the legacy of the New Deal (and, not incidentally, of his late father, Mario Cuomo) will finally become extinct. The Democrats, like the Republicans, will be a party of the wealthy for the wealthy—more specifically, the pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, pro-immigration, and pro-science wealthy.
On the other side is New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, also a social liberal, who has focused on tackling the city’s inequality crisis. Almost alone among elected Democrats, he has argued for (slightly) higher taxes on the wealthy (in this case, to fund universal pre-K); has passed paid-sick-leave legislation and a limited living-wage executive order; and is fighting for a $15 minimum wage in the city, among many other initiatives. But most of his plans have been frustrated by resistance in Albany. This is the case even when such measures would cost the state nothing. (Cuomo likens his opposition to the city’s now-defunct “millionaire’s tax” to—I swear I’m not making this up—his father’s principled and politically costly opposition to the death penalty.)
Together with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, de Blasio has become a high-profile spokesperson for the Democrats’ ideal of economic liberalism. But unlike the two senators, who are working within a recalcitrant, Republican-controlled Congress, de Blasio enjoys actual (albeit limited) executive authority over a vast bureaucratic apparatus—one that requires him to make distasteful deal after distasteful deal to advance his anti-inequality agenda.
Because so many of the mayor’s priorities require Albany’s approval, de Blasio chose to play patsy for Cuomo—sometimes even his punching bag—in the hopes of winning at least a nonaggression pact on economic matters. De Blasio knew that his ambitious agenda demanded it, however much his ego may have recoiled. This frustrated local progressives, whose hatred of Cuomo is boundless, but it made sense in the context of the relationship and helped the mayor make inroads in Albany during his first year in office.