In an interview with MSNBC, Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, offers himself as a lodestar for the Democratic party, touting his “progressive economic populism” as a winning formula for 2020 and beyond. One gets the impression that de Blasio, who has never been known for his humility, believes he has a realistic shot at the Democratic presidential nomination, despite the fact that he is not even the most plausible big-city mayor in the offing. That distinction belongs to Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, who is shrewdly leveraging his Hollywood donor base to fill the coffers of Democratic-party organizations in early primary states, as recently reported in Politico. Indeed, my sense is that de Blasio’s chances of winning the nomination are less than those of the much-admired Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is also considering a presidential bid. This is despite the fact that South Bend, the fourth-largest city in Indiana, has a population around 1.2 percent that of New York City, the largest city in the United States. (For more on Buttigieg’s efforts to establish his progressive bona fides, see Alexandra DeSanctis’s latest on abortion politics in South Bend.)
Nevertheless, de Blasio has wisdom he is eager to share. For one, he believes that regional distinctions have faded in American life, and that Donald Trump is evidence of the fact that a candidate from a big-city, coastal background can win over the heartland, provided she or he addresses the issues that are relevant to working-class voters. He identified two of those issues as cornerstones of his mayoralty, universal preschool and ending the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy. Despite my misgivings about universal preschool, I’m all for policies aimed to lighten the load borne by parents, and I don’t doubt that criminal-justice issues will move many voters in Democratic primaries. I’m less confident that older swing-state voters are going to find de Blasio’s mayoral record especially compelling.
But those issues weren’t de Blasio’s focus in the interview. Rather, he had another cause in mind: raising taxes on the rich. He presents this idea as though it is terribly out of fashion or horribly controversial, despite the fact that just about every one of the dozens of would-be Democratic presidential contenders endorses it. Nor does he mention that he failed to raise taxes on the rich in his own jurisdiction, as the state government in Albany prevented him from doing so. At the very least, this could be reasonably characterized as a failure of de Blasio’s deal-making prowess. If raising taxes on the rich were such a high priority, he presumably gave it his all, yet he still came up short. Given that persuading Congress to get on board with his agenda will likely be more difficult still, that is a letdown. One result of his failure is that we can’t really say how his tax-raising experiment would have played out in the five boroughs.
Most importantly, de Blasio never articulates the boundary separating the rich from the non-rich. This is crucial, as Megan McArdle argues in the Washington Post: To finance the kind of government de Blasio and his allies want most, they will have to raise taxes not just on a tiny sliver of the ultra-rich, but also on the millions of Americans who can justly be described as members of the upper-middle class, a group that has been trending leftward and that is overrepresented in the densely populated coastal metropolises that are the heart of the Democratic base. Funnily enough, when talking about the kind of programs he cherishes and wants to see more of, de Blasio identifies Social Security (a program that is indeed very popular, yet which is financed by a broad-based payroll tax, not a steeply progressive income tax) and local public schools (which are financed through a mix of revenue streams, including property taxes and broad-based retail sales taxes). Would Social Security have proven quite as durable had it been financed by the Rockefellers and the Gateses, or is the fact that it is financed by payroll taxes essential to its success and (relative) sustainability? One gets the sense that de Blasio has some thinking to do. Or he could abandon his presidential aspirations and find a new hobby, such as addressing New York City’s various quality-of-life issues. This wouldn’t be as glamorous as chatting up national political reporters, I realize, but we all make sacrifices in life.