Politics & Policy

Lindsay’s Lessons for de Blasio

New York mayor John Lindsay, 1966 (Libary of Congress)
Fifty years apart, two mayors have a lot in common.

Imagine a mayor of New York City, about halfway through his first term, inserting himself into presidential politics by attempting to push his party far to the left. If you are picturing Bill de Blasio, you aren’t wrong, but he is not the first New York mayor to make this attempt. In 1968, first-term mayor John Lindsay very nearly became the Republican nominee for vice president. But things didn’t go quite as planned. As Bill de Blasio seeks to lead the far-left wing of the Democratic party, the experiences of the Republican Lindsay illustrate both the opportunities and the dangers in his plan.

In 1966, John Lindsay became the first Republican mayor since Fiorello La Guardia left office two decades earlier. In 2014, Bill de Blasio became the first Democratic mayor since David Dinkins left office, also two decades earlier. Both men saw the early optimism of their populist election victories diminished by battles with important city unions. And both men began very early in their terms to challenge the prevailing sentiments of their national party establishments — both from the left.

At first, Lindsay’s liberal vision for the GOP was seen by some in the party as an opportunity. But others, most notably National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., who ran against Lindsay for mayor in 1965, abhorred his progressive positions. As Ronald Reagan emerged as an important conservative voice in the Republican party, Lindsay’s views grew more out-of-step with the future of the GOP. But none of this was obvious in a late-night meeting after Richard Nixon secured the nomination for president on August 8, 1968.

A young congressman named Donald Rumsfeld was in attendance and took some fascinating notes, including his own advice to Nixon, expressing his support for Lindsay or another liberal Republican, Senator Chuck Percy of Illinois, for the vice-presidential nomination. “I emphasized the need to select a man who could speak for the party to the young, the black, the disaffected in a way that could encourage them to responsible citizenship, rather than turning them off,” Rumsfeld wrote. The future secretary of defense did not get his wish. The Southern contingent of the GOP — less interested in young, disaffected, or black voters – would have none of it. The political landscape shifted under Lindsay’s feet, and he was left off the map. Three years later, Lindsay was a Democrat, but in campaigns for the presidency and the Senate under that party’s banner he was never successful.

Like Lindsay, de Blasio supposedly appeals to the young, the progressive, the voters more interested in equality than economic growth.

There is no danger of Bill de Blasio’s becoming a Republican, but the lesson in all of this is clear. The fringe of a party is dangerous ground. It may keep you safely embedded as a senator from Massachusetts or a mayor of New York, but on the national political scene it is shaky territory. Like Lindsay, de Blasio supposedly appeals to the young, the progressive, the voters more interested in equality than economic growth. This is a loud segment of the Democratic coalition. But just as in 1968, it is far from clear that it is a segment with the legs to win national elections, or even to sway the country’s mind from coast to coast. If New York’s mayor is to have a political future beyond the Hudson River, it will be because the Democratic party has swung hard to the left. But is that the future of the Democratic party?

In the New York Times this week, Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center suggests that this is the case. And it’s true that the Democratic party has moved far to the left since Bill Clinton left office. On crime, welfare, military intervention, gay marriage, and taxes, the Bill Clinton ethos is no longer the standard. But what if the rise of progressivism is at its apex, not at its base camp?

Everybody other than Martin O’Malley and perhaps his immediate family thinks that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president next year. Clinton has moved to the left on some issues, such as gay marriage, free speech, and crime. But there is every reason to believe that, as candidate or as president, Hillary Clinton would continue the neoliberal, third-way, moderate 1990s policies of her husband and Tony Blair. Should that be the case, Bill de Blasio will find himself the standard bearer of a movement with no practical political prospects.

A lot gets made of the fact that mayors of New York never get elected to another office after they leave Gracie Mansion. But this is not actually that surprising. After all, other than president of the United States, any other office is at best a lateral move. But some ex-mayors have gone on to have influence on the national scene. Rudy Giuliani does. Michael Bloomberg does. David Dinkins? Ed Koch? Abe Beame? Not so much. And ultimately neither did Lindsay, despite getting so close. For better or for worse, just as John Lindsay did, Bill de Blasio has a real shot to matter.

Mayor Lindsay’s legacy in New York City is mixed. He is widely, and rightly, credited with soothing the racial tensions of his city while others burned. But he also ran the city in the lead-up to an absolute nadir of economic and social conditions. Very little is named after Lindsay. There is a road that runs through Central Park that bears his name. In 1966, he limited the use of that road to pedestrians and cyclists on weekends, a practice that is still with us. Mayor de Blasio first rose to national prominence as the guy who wants to get rid of the Central Park horse carriages. He wants electric cars instead. Depending on how the winds blow, Bill de Blasio could be a national figure for years to come. He could also be the guy whom the Central Park electric-car depot is named after.

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