Bill de Bla­sio and the Obama ef­fect

Lib­eral nostrum may flower in Man­hat­tan but will wilt un­der the heat of re­al­ity

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion - By Michael Taube By Muriel Dob­bin

It wasn’t that long ago when a Demo­cratic politi­cian would run away in earnest from be­ing called a lib­eral. The party faith­ful re­mem­bered how this po­lit­i­cal la­bel helped de­stroy Michael S. Dukakis’s 1988 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Then-Vice Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush, the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee, re­peat­edly scored huge points by bash­ing his Demo­cratic op­po­nent with terms like “Mas­sachusetts lib­eral” and “card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the ACLU.”

Af­ter Mr. Dukakis fi­nally said he was “a lib­eral in the tra­di­tion of Franklin Roo­sevelt and Harry Tru­man and John Kennedy” (which he wasn’t, mind you), Mr. Bush scored a huge knock­out blow with this com­ment, “Mir­a­cle of mir­a­cles. Head­lines. Read all about it. My op­po­nent fi­nally … called him­self the big ‘L,’ called him­self a lib­eral.” He even threw in this for good mea­sure, “The gov­er­nor of Mas­sachusetts should de­bate him­self. It could be en­ter­tain­ing. The Old Left or the New Left. ”

That was then, and this is now. In to­day’s po­lit­i­cal scene, lib­eral is no longer a dirty word. If any­thing, it’s treated with some rev­er­ence in cer­tain states.

Take last week’s New York City mayoral elec­tion. Demo­crat Bill de Bla­sio won a mas­sive and widely ex­pected vic­tory over Repub­li­can Joseph Lhota. The 49point mar­gin of vic­tory was the big­gest win by a non-in­cum­bent mayoral can­di­date in the city’s elec­toral his­tory.

To be sure, New York­ers are over­whelm­ingly lib­eral and Demo­cratic — by a 6-1 mar­gin, ac­cord­ing to most stud­ies. Mr. de Bla­sio’s vic­tory was also aided by a mas­sive voter re­jec­tion of nearly two decades of Repub­li­can rule at City Hall — and Michael R. Bloomberg’s volatile two-term stint as a Repub­li­can and one more as an In­de­pen­dent.

Yet even in lib­eral New York, this is still a shock­ing po­lit­i­cal tilt.

Let’s con­sider Mr. de Bla­sio’s record. He is, quite pos­si­bly, the most left-wing mayor — and politi­cian — ever elected in the United States. He is anti-es­tab­lish­ment, pro-union, doesn’t trust the po­lice, dis­likes Wall Street and cap­i­tal­ism, and wants to soak the rich to pay for pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. This is to say noth­ing of his pre­vi­ous sup­port for Nicaragua’s San­din­ista gov­ern­ment, var­i­ous nods of ap­pre­ci­a­tion from the Hol­ly­wood elite, and even his wife’s un­usual past as a black writer and ac­tivist.

It’s of­ten said that James L. Buck­ley’s stun­ning 1970 Se­nate vic­tory as a Con­ser­va­tive Party of New York can­di­date was the state’s big­gest elec­toral up­set. Mr. de Bla­sio, who polled in ei­ther fourth or fifth place for the Demo­cratic pri­mary in the early go­ing, may have just re­placed Wil­liam F. Buck­ley’s older brother in the record books.

Some New York­ers prob­a­bly voted for Mr. de Bla­sio be­cause they agreed with his poli­cies. Oth­ers prob­a­bly voted for him be­cause he was a for­mer City Coun­cil mem­ber and pub­lic ad­vo­cate. Still oth­ers may have blindly voted for him be­cause he was the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee — and they didn’t give a tinker’s darn about his ex­treme left-wing views.

Mr. de Bla­sio’s vic­tory also has another im­por­tant, and rather trou­bling, mean­ing. In my view, this is the rise of Demo­cratic pro­gres­sivism that many con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­tar­i­ans have wor­ried about since Barack Obama was first elected pres­i­dent.

This doesn’t mean the United States is sud­denly turn­ing lib­eral. As men­tioned in my Oct. 30 col­umn in The Wash­ing­ton Times, ac­cord­ing to re­spected po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist James A. Stim­son, lib­er­al­ism reached its low­est point in 50 years in 2012.

At the same time, it’s prob­a­bly fair to say Demo­cratic pro­gres­sivism is start­ing to gain trac­tion in some ma­jor cities. There’s noth­ing to pre­vent Los An­ge­les, Mi­ami, Philadel­phia or Bos­ton from elect­ing a sim­i­lar mayoral can­di­date down the road. If that were to hap­pen, it could even­tu­ally have an enor­mous po­lit­i­cal ef­fect on the na­tional scale.

How can Amer­i­cans — and New York­ers — stop the bleed­ing? Here are three ways.

First, free-mar­ket-ori­ented Repub­li­cans and Democrats in New York have to iden­tify the po­ten­tial prob­lems the new mayor’s po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic agenda could have on the city and coun­try. Sec­ond, Mr. de Bla­sio’s pro­gres­sive ten­den­cies need to be iso­lated, cri­tiqued and shunned for be­ing out of touch with to­day’s eco­nomic re­al­i­ties. Third, U.S. vot­ers need to re­ject lib­eral Democrats at the bal­lot box like there’s no tomorrow.

Joseph-Marie de Maistre fa­mously wrote, “Ev­ery na­tion gets the gov­ern­ment it de­serves.” New York­ers will def­i­nitely get the whop­per of a mayor they so richly de­serve, but they can still pre­vent other Bill de Bla­sio clones from hold­ing pub­lic of­fice.

Pan­theon, $24.95, 256 pages

There are talk­ing shoes and think­ing ba­bies and a “mod­ern hus­bands” class, and yes, it means Alexan­der McCall Smith is back in his beloved world of Botswana and the No. 1 Ladies De­tec­tive Agency. Mma Pre­cious Ramotswe, the “tra­di­tion­ally built” head of the agency still reigns, but she is pre­oc­cu­pied by an ad­di­tional mem­ber of the cast in the small but im­por­tant per­son of Itume­lang Clo­vis Radi­phuti, the newly born son of her as­sis­tant, Mma Makutsi, now pro­moted to as­so­ci­ate de­tec­tive. Mma Ramotswe dis­cov­ers that she missed her as­sis­tant more than she ex­pected, de­spite her sub­or­di­nate’s bossi­ness and her in­cli­na­tion to have con­ver­sa­tions with her shoes. So Itume­lang joins the staff as part of a new per­son­nel file la­beled “ba­bies,” and his mother is back on the job a few days af­ter giv­ing birth. For­tu­nately, Itume­lang is a quiet baby, which, his mother ex­plains, is be­cause he is think­ing. She can tell when he is think­ing, she says firmly, and Mma Ramotswe ob­serves with her usual tact that it is bet­ter for ba­bies to be think­ing than cry­ing.

Mr. McCall Smith in­dulges in sev­eral de­light­ful plot twists in his lat­est por­trayal of life in the land where he was born and that ob­vi­ously has a hold on his heart. There is em­pha­sis on the im­por­tance of peo­ple be­ing kind to each other, which is one of the au­thor’s fa­vorite topics.

In “The Mi­nor Ad­just­ment Beauty Salon,” he em­pha­sizes the at­tach­ment be­tween Mma Ramotswe and her hus­band, garage owner J.L.B. Matekoni, who demon­strates his af­fec­tion by en­rolling in the course for hus­bands run by the most un­pleas­ant woman Mr. McCall Smith has ever writ­ten about. Mr. Matekoni doesn’t think much of the class or its teacher, but he does go home and try to cook din­ner for the first time. In a hi­lar­i­ous scene, Mma Ramotswe has to ex­plain to her per­plexed hus­band that his fa­vorite mashed pota­toes must be cooked first. His sec­ond culi­nary ven­ture is with sausages and what he calls “the red beans that grow in cans.” His wife is greatly touched by such de­vo­tion, as she should be.

Not that she is ne­glect­ing her de­tec­tive work. She is still dip­ping into the works of Clo­vis An­der­son, whom she con­sid­ers her in­spi­ra­tion as a great Amer­i­can in­ves­ti­ga­tor, for ad­vice on how to solve a case of le­gal iden­tity and the mys­tery of who is leav­ing ma­li­cious mes­sages in the brand new beauty salon of Mma Sereti, whose face creams have been un­justly de­nounced as dan­ger­ous to the skin. In be­tween, Mma Ramotswe vis­its friends who ply her with home­made sul­tana cake that has more than its fair share of sul­tanas, and frets about lo­cal wrong­do­ing, al­though she re­mains tol­er­ant even of those of whose be­hav­ior she can­not ap­prove.

The au­thor is at his most hi­lar­i­ous when he tells of mis­chievous do­ings in Botswana, such as how Mma Makutsi’s hus­band, Phuti, used a dead snake in the at­tic as a de­vice to bring about the de­par­ture of an es­pe­cially tem­per­a­men­tal aunt. Phuti’s as­sur­ances that the co­bra in the at­tic had gone did not per­suade his aunt to leave even when the snake’s skin was found. She fled home to the glee of Mma Makutsi, who knew that Phuti had told the truth about the snake be­ing gone. Its demise was proved by the fact that still bulging in­side its skin was a dead rat that had proved too large for the co­bra to swal­low

There is also the touch­ing story of how Mma Makutsi washes Mma Ramotswe’s muddy feet af­ter she has plod­ded through a “red brown sea” to get to the Makutsi home. As they sit to­gether and Mma Makutsi of­fers her ad­vice on a new case, Mma Ramotswe re­al­izes how moved she is by the ges­ture and how much she has missed her as­sis­tant now pro­moted to as­so­ci­ate.

“She wanted to say we are back again in the team that has al­ways worked so well. She wanted to say you were only away for a very short time, but I’ve missed you so much. I’ve missed your odd re­marks, I’ve missed your talk­ing shoes. I’ve missed ev­ery­thing.”

But she doesn’t say such things — “For once again she sensed that our heart is not al­ways able to say what it wants to say and fre­quently has to con­tent it­self with less.”

Phi­los­o­phy of the gen­tlest na­ture has al­ways been pre­dom­i­nant in Mr. McCall Smith’s books, es­pe­cially those based in Botswana, about which he clearly has the fond­est of mem­o­ries. Even the trou­bles that are brought to the No. 1 Ladies’ De­tec­tive Agency for so­lu­tion are re­solved by un­der­stand­ing and not anger.

In a part­ner­ship of con­tent­ment, Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi sit in the twi­light and re­gard their world in si­lence. “As night em­braced Botswana, the red glow in the sky faded, yet still seemed to be there, some­how, well af­ter it had gone.” This is vin­tage Mr. McCall Smith.

ILLUSTRATION BY GREG GROESCH

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