Among the people who cover politics, make their living through politics, or analyze politics like a never-ending NFL season, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s presidential bid is a laughable proposition. The Democrat on Thursday became the first sitting New York mayor since John Lindsay over 40 years ago to launch a campaign for the White House—it did not end well for Lindsay, and it probably won’t for de Blasio.
Before he got out of the starting gate, media organizations mocked the idea of de Blasio fathoming himself as president. He spent his first term arriving late to events at an almost pathological level. He insists on taking an SUV from the Upper East Side to Park Slope for tepid gym workouts. He’s been investigated by local and federal authorities for alleged quid-pro-quo corruption schemes. The New York City Housing Authority, which he oversees, is at a crisis point—and has been for a while. He stonewalls the press a lot.
There is no serious horse race case to make for de Blasio. He enters the race polling at 0 or 1 percent, depending on where you look. He is many millions of dollars behind top candidates like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and the man he probably resents most, South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. To build out a competitive presidential bid, a candidate needs gobs of money and talented staff; de Blasio will lack for both, because the money and people are elsewhere.
His transactional fundraising will not work on a national level, just as it wouldn’t work for Governor Andrew Cuomo, were he audacious or foolish enough to also attempt a presidential bid. For presidential primaries, individual donations are capped at $2,700—to reach the stratosphere of funding needed for a real run, you either need to cultivate an extraordinary online small donor base like Sanders or lock up wealthy bundlers like Biden. De Blasio can probably sucker a few heavy donors in NYC who want to stay on his good side, but major cash will be flowing to the contenders with an actual shot at the nomination.
De Blasio is mostly unknown nationally. He is not a billionaire like Michael Bloomberg and did not milk a once-in-a-generation tragedy like Rudolph Giuliani. It’s worth remembering the last New York mayor to run for president while in office, John Lindsay, was far more of a national figure than de Blasio: a glamorous, Kennedyesque Republican-turned-Democrat, he graced the covers of Time and Life Magazines when that meant much more, and actually placed second in one caucus before eventually dropping out. A second-place finish for de Blasio in any primary or caucus is not likely.
There are real, laudable accomplishments to which de Blasio the presidential candidate can lay claim. Universal prekindergarten is not radical, but he was the mayor to see it through. Crime remains low and de Blasio at least demonstrated a politician doesn’t have to fearmonger about stop-and-frisk to keep the peace. He will be the mayor who initiated the closure of hellish Rikers Island. He has taken a stand against pedestrian fatalities, turning around dangerous arteries like Queens Boulevard. Smaller reforms, like mandatory paid sick days and barring employers from asking for salary and criminal history, will make a real difference in the lives of working class people.
De Blasio, as a white, self-described progressive, can also credibly talk about cultivating support among black voters. In middling poll after middling poll, his support from black New Yorkers has remained robust. Unlike his immediate predecessors, de Blasio has not polled overwhelmingly well in the city he governs, never soaring to a 70 percent approval rating like Bloomberg or Giuliani. That’s in part because white voters of most ideological stripes despise him; he remains slightly above or below water thanks to the backing of black voters in areas like Central Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.
In de Blasio’s defense, being a national tabula rasa gives him a shot at reinvention. He can speak of his strengths and elide his weaknesses. He is a center-left Democrat who longs to be taken seriously by the grassroots left, even if his record and instincts never took him there. Sanders and Warren supporters have little reason to abandon their candidates for him, but de Blasio at least could make the pitch. He wasn’t a shill for charter schools and Wall Street like Cory Booker. He didn’t vote for the Iraq War like Biden. He has a better record of diversity hires and fires than Buttigieg.
There is perhaps one inarguable point that can be made about de Blasio: no presidential candidate, outside of Biden, has held a tougher executive level position.
While the political class venerates various members of Congress as future presidential timber the minute they arrive in D.C., legislators can be understood, in New York terms, as glorified public advocates: their outsize platforms mask their lack of power and responsibility. There is little to do beyond casting occasional votes of consequence, funneling some cash back home, and, of course, thought-leading and tweeting.
Nothing can really be their fault. No one demands answers from Chuck Schumer when a cop kills a black man on Staten Island or a deranged man kills two cops in Brooklyn. No one asks Kirsten Gillibrand to show up at the scene of a fatal explosion and then somehow comfort the families of those who were lost. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has the privilege of talking about whatever issues she wants to talk about with preselected, largely friendly news outlets; no need to field questions from dozens of reporters weekly on everything from Trump to diversity at specialized high schools to the future of e-bikes to cost overruns at park bathrooms.
Ebola scares and measles outbreaks aren’t their problem, either. Neither is crime, the public schools, the failing subways (the mayor doesn’t run them but tell that to most New Yorkers, or the governor), the affordable housing crisis, the homeless crisis, or the myriad inevitable issues, both minor and immense, that crop up in a city that is more than twice as large as its nearest competitor.
When Bernie Sanders leaves Vermont to campaign, as he often does, he does not have to fear being called back home at a moment’s notice when a bomb goes off in a busy neighborhood. South Bend, a quarter the size of Staten Island, will hum along fine without Mayor Pete. Massachusetts is Charlie Baker’s concern, not Warren’s.
We are de Blasio’s burden and we resent he is trying to leave us. It’s his right, just as it is any ladder-climbing politician’s to brand-build. It’s a free country. Let him try and let him fail. If Andrew Yang can be treated credibly in the national press, why not the mayor of America’s largest and most important city?
What de Blasio leaves behind, as he treks off to Iowa and New Hampshire, is the chance to do far more for New York City. His second term has lacked the energy and purpose of his first, and there is no overarching policy vision to guide it. There is no universal pre-K equivalent; no ambitious plans to radically remake the streetscape or improve transit beyond plowing subsidies into puttering ferries. As rent laws face expiration in Albany, he has played little role in lobbying for improvements.
De Blasio seems tired of us. Bloomberg, for all his flaws, never wanted to let the city go, ignoring the will of voters to cling desperately to a third term. The final year of Bloomberg’s mayoralty was a hustle of legacy-burnishing press releases. If some of it was theater, at least he wanted you to know he was attempting to leave his mark in the sand. He was lucky too: he was never blamed as much for sowing the seeds of the housing and homeless crises we grapple with today.
Perhaps de Blasio, who has never lost an election, believes this one can be won too. If he is wrong, he will slink back to a city that needs a leader to care for it: for its housing, its roads, its schools, and its people. There is time left to do that. The 2020 presidential race does not need another Democrat. New York, however, always needs a mayor.