Politics & Policy

A Fitting Choice

Conservative policies remade New York--into the perfect GOP convention city.

–On Monday, shortly before midnight, Julie Klausner and Neil Casey stand at the corner of 34th Street and 7th Avenue. They greet Republicans streaming from Madison Square Garden with tasteful posters: “Go Home You Jerks” and “How Dare You.” Their thoughts on New York as GOP host city? “It’s exploitative,” says Klausner. “Terrible.” New York, they say, does not share the Republicans’ values.

But Klausner and Casey couldn’t be more wrong. Positioned beneath large, easily legible street signs, and standing on clean, well-lit sidewalks–lined with planters and attractive lampposts adorned with hanging greens–they are surrounded by evidence of how compassionate conservatism remade New York.

That this makes the Big Apple a perfect convention site was the central theme of a Manhattan Institute conference last week, on “Compassionate Conservative Policies That Changed New York City.” And in need of change it was: Sixties liberalism had led to the abolition of educational standards in public schools. Leftist dogma had administrators and academics hand-wringing over “root causes” instead of fighting crime, and had left homelessness and welfare reform untouchable. And redistributive economics had clubbed the city with a crushing tax burden.

But compassionate conservatives came to the rescue. Herman Badillo worked to restore the City University of New York (CUNY) as a vessel of opportunity and upward mobility for low-income and immigrant New Yorkers. Peter Cove founded America Works, and transformed dependent welfare recipients into self-sufficient individuals. The Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations oversaw a 70 percent reduction in the murder rate, diminished homelessness, and an astonishing revival of public spaces. And George W. Bush’s tax cuts at the federal level helped redirect desperately needed wealth back to New York State and City following 9/11.


One of the accomplishments most visible to conventioneers is the transformation of New York policing. At the second of the conference’s three panel discussions, noted criminologist George Kelling–co-author of the landmark essay “Broken Windows“–explained how rejecting conventional approaches to crime led to a dramatic turnaround. Subways and other public spaces were unsafe not because of poverty and homelessness–as liberals maintained–but because of lawlessness. Cracking down simply by enforcing the law might seem like a commonsense approach, but it was one generally shunned by narrow-minded public administrators. Under Mayor Giuliani and his police commissioner, William Bratton, the stagnant, top-down liberal approach to governance–letting the federal government or courts intrude on and even control what should be handled locally–was dismissed in favor of creativity and dynamism at the precinct level. As Kelling said, “Every innovation that helped turn New York around came about at the local level. The police led the innovation–not the feds, not the courts, not the department of corrections.” Preventive police work was emphasized, encouraging cops to make their precincts safe before crimes happened, instead of making them sit on their hands until after crimes had already taken place. A culture was cultivated in which street-level policing and surveillance were encouraged, and smart initiatives–like CompStat–were celebrated and implemented. Precinct commanders were given greater autonomy in meeting their communities’ specific needs, which also meant that they, and the NYPD in general, were held to higher standards of accountability–which they were more than happy to meet.

An issue also near and dear to conventioneers is security–something Kelling said can benefit from this new approach to crime-fighting. “Community policing is absolutely essential to terror prevention,” he insisted, explaining that the emphasis on preventive instead of reactive measures is one lesson from the policing turnaround that should be central to combating terrorism. So is a prioritization of local, street-level surveillance: “Somebody should have noticed that the Prudential building was being cased.” Applying the Broken Windows approach–cutting down on seemingly “small” crimes to help prevent bigger ones–also has potential. Just as thieves and murderers often have “minor” drug offenses on their records before they’re apprehended for more serious acts, so too do terrorists often commit “minor” crimes–traffic violations, credit-card fraud, money laundering–before moving on to unspeakable evil.

Kelling is also quick to warn against obsessing over “root causes” in fighting terrorism. “Criminologists have studied over and over and over the motivations of criminals. Unfortunately, there has been no definitive answer as to what has been the motivation; and what little has come forward is not really policy relevant. You don’t need to know their motives to eliminate crime–or terror.” Instead of fretting over why terrorists hate us, we should dedicate our resources to ensuring that their hatred isn’t allowed to slaughter thousands of Americans.

These ideas, Kelling says, aren’t necessarily conservative, or liberal. But the Left had dominated failed public-policy discussions and practices since the 1960s, “and it’s the Left, especially the criminological Left, that has been attacking the progress that has been made in New York City.” Listening to Democrats on the stump and in the media, it’s also the Left attacking the progress conservatives have made in fighting terror.


This leftist resistance to the potential of new ideas is a familiar problem for Daniel Biederman, president of the 34th Street Partnership. Biederman, also a conference panelist, helped transform Bryant Park and the surrounding area, as well as 34th Street (home to Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, as well as a bustling commercial district). It wasn’t easy: He, and others who urge the privatization of public services, had to confront strong resistance from the Left. Biederman is a Democrat-turned-Republican, and “in thinking of how I changed,” he said, he recalled how he’d “worked alongside the city system for many years, watching bright people frustrated by that stagnating system,” and the Left’s tenacious support for failed approaches to providing public services. “It’s hard to innovate in the public sector,” Biederman says. “It’s hard to do research and development, because of the budget–you can’t go and see new things, and get new ideas.”

But in the private sector, Biederman was able to pursue those new ideas–often on his own dime. He brought back to New York the observation that white street lamps are much better than the city’s old yellow ones, because they are brighter and thus make it harder for criminals to work unseen in the dark. Those attending the GOP convention will also notice the large illuminated street signs in the area around the Garden: another of the 34th Street Partnership’s innovations, and one that makes it harder to get lost (and thereby endanger oneself in unfamiliar neighborhoods). Biederman also fought the conventional cynicism that said any aesthetic improvements–such as the flower-filled planters that now line 34th Street–would be vandalized if left unattended. But Biederman and others have found that when offered these small quality-of-life improvements, people tend to police one another, and themselves, in order to preserve them. The optimism and faith in individual citizens that have been the hallmarks of the GOP convention paid huge dividends in reshaping New York’s public spaces.

This was especially true in reviving Bryant Park. In 1979, the park was the site of 500 serious crimes (as defined by the FBI), 150 of them robberies. “It was covered in graffiti,” recalls Biederman. “Everything smelled of urine and feces; the trees and plants were in disarray, most of them dead; the lawn was a dustbowl or mud-bowl, depending on the weather; restaurants had been closed–right in the middle of what should have been a terrific place for people to gather.” The city couldn’t afford to combat the crime and squalor; but when public funds (and a public-sector mindset) ceased to be the only options–when Biederman and his organization stepped in–the results were dramatic. Bryant Park is now beautiful and welcoming, and has become one of the most crowded public spaces in the world, with the average user staying for an hour and fifteen minutes. Small wonder: Movable chairs may be positioned in sun or shade for maximum comfort; restaurants, a carousel, and the nearby New York Public Library are appealing attractions; and Wi-Fi access in the park means that many office-building denizens with laptops and cellphones can work outside in nice weather. The park’s popularity also helps keep crime down: safety in numbers.

Are these accomplishments “conservative”? Yes and no. As with reducing crime, the desire to improve public spaces is largely apolitical. But doing it successfully seems to be the purview of conservatives. Says Biederman, “There’s this liberal instinct that everything must run through government, otherwise, it’s undemocratic.” At the conference, however, he pointed out that allowing private businesses to improve Bryant Park was an extremely democratic reform, extending to New Yorkers of all incomes and backgrounds access to gardens and botanical beauty previously enjoyed only by the wealthy. Yet “the Left has been the main opposition to park privatization,” Biederman observes. And those willing to take risks and try new, ultimately successful ideas have been conservatives, or at least moderate to right-leaning liberals. (Biederman cites Newt Gingrich, former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, and New York City mayors Koch and Bloomberg as examples.) And insofar as the privatization of public services helps shrink government, it is something most conservatives find tremendously appealing, and are happy to support.

But don’t tell that to the leftists enjoying the benefits of these policies. Insists Protester Casey, “Well, those are liberal goals, and progressive liberal views, because they’re good for more people.” Casey is entitled to his opinion–but former Mayor Giuliani is entitled to his: “That is what the Republican party does best when we are at our best, we extend freedom.” Whether it’s the freedom to achieve a quality education from public schools, the freedom to keep more of one’s hard-earned money and spend it as one pleases, the freedom to enjoy beautiful public spaces, the freedom from fear of crime and terror, or the freedom to try new and innovative ideas, conservatives do extend freedom–and they certainly have in New York, transforming an ailing city into a thriving example of urban success.

“Go Home You Jerks”? In New York, the GOP is home–at home among the improvements its optimism and emphasis on freedom helped generate.

Meghan Clyne is an NR associate editor.


The Latest