Bill de Blasio and the Obama effect
Liberal nostrum may flower in Manhattan but will wilt under the heat of reality
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.