Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Governor Bill de Blasio?
On popularism, deliverism, and the man who won't run New York State
When David Shor, the noted data scientist, appeared on Ezra Klein’s podcast in October, he ignited yet another debate about how Democrats should save themselves.
Shor is a proponent of a political theory known as “popularism” that states, rather plainly, Democrats need to embrace popular and non-controversial ideas to win elections. Shor has drawn the ire of some progressives for blaming the party’s leftward shift on immigration and policing for downballot electoral losses—defund comes in for a drubbing under Shor—but his arguments are logical. If Democrats can’t figure out a way, in rural states especially, to win back working-class voters who are more conservative than they are on cultural affairs, they will not wield much power in this country. The 2020 election produced the highest turnout in modern times and only gave the Democrats a 50-50 Senate majority. Given how the Senate favors sparsely populated, conservative states (the Dakotas get four senators and California gets two), Democrats will need to determine how, in the coming years, to reverse losses there. Otherwise, the future is grim.
One critique of Shor that I have sympathy for is that he doesn’t take into account the ability of Democrats to make tangible progress in the lives of Americans and win votes that way. Deliver on meaningful policy and win the loyalty of voters for a generation, as Franklin Roosevelt did through the New Deal. The social safety net has not been radically expanded in a half century, Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid representing the last gasps of an America trending in a socialistic direction. David Dayen, the editor of the American Prospect, argued instead for “deliverism,” a theory that is as blunt as popularism: it’s not enough to talk about popular stuff. You actually have to deliver it to the people.
“You cannot talk about the same popular items, fail to deliver on them, and expect the voting public to keep listening to you. There are diminishing returns to parties that never seem to get results,” Dayen wrote. “Deliverism means governing well and establishing a record that the electorate needed to win actually feels.”
I’m open to both approaches. The Democratic Party cannot merely approximate what Bill Clinton did in the 1990s, triangulating its way to electoral wins while selling out the working-class. Clinton’s deregulation of the financial industry fueled the crash of 2008. His embrace of NAFTA and anti-union policy chased white working-class voters from the party. In truth, it meant little that a Democrat controlled the country for much of that decade; a second term of George H.W. Bush, paired with Newt Gingrich’s House majority, could have offered similar outcomes. Certainly, the tough-on-crime policies emanating from the Clinton White House could have been easily backed by President Bob Dole.
Clinton was a gifted politician. Imagine, instead, he was a true populist, like another Southern Democratic governor, Huey Long. Long is vilified today for his authoritarian style, but it is hard to find another politician who did more for a state in a short amount of time than Long accomplished for Louisiana in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Long sent free textbooks to poor schoolchildren, lavishly funded the state university system, and built a staggering number of roads and bridges. Long almost single-handedly dragged Louisiana into the 20th century. For a white man of his era, he held progressive views on race and challenged the hegemony of the Ku Klux Klan. The big business interests of the state, oil in particular, had much to fear from the Long machine. Had he not been assassinated in 1935, he might have ended up president of the United States. The Kingfish came from the working-class himself and had an intuitive understanding of what the disadvantaged voter wanted. He knew, in a popularist way, how to talk about issues. He was not a socialist, but the “Share Our Wealth” program, promoted when he reached the Senate, was socialist in every sense. Long understood, with the Soviet Union reviled in the U.S., income redistribution needed a rebranding. And he gave it one.
Can Democrats deliver and win today? Here is where I’m a little less optimistic than Dayen. Democrats should deliver because it’s the right thing to do. Joe Biden will very likely not have Democratic majorities in 2023. The era of governing—of legislation passing Congress and landing on his desk—will end then. Like Barack Obama, Biden will encounter either Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or an obstructionist Republican speaker (maybe both) who will have every incentive to grind government to a halt and watch him fail. Expand the social safety net now and make the child tax credit permanent because all of it will be impossible in another year.
But even if Democrats deliver now, it might not save them. The national political environment is both poisoned and cyclical. Backlash cycles are the norm. Polarization has taken hold and Republican-leaning voters are far less persuadable. And there is the reality that delivery takes time. Democrats were crushed in the 2010 Republican wave after passing the Affordable Care Act, which was controversial in that period. Eight years later, during the anti-Trump backlash cycle, Democrats campaigned on protecting Obamacare. Republicans today no longer stump on undermining the law. The flawed ACA was Obama’s greatest success, though not necessarily a testament to deliverism. Running on the ACA only worked when Trump and House Republicans were trying to repeal it. Now that Republicans are out of power, Democrats cannot simply brag about expanding healthcare and hope to win.
If deliverism does have its limits as a full-scale vote-winning movement—let me stress all Democrats should try to deliver for voters, always—there is a man who has come, in his own bumbling way, to embody that reality. In another month, Mayor Bill de Blasio will leave office. He is contemplating a run for governor against the incumbent, Kathy Hochul, and a number of other high-profile candidates, including Attorney General Letitia James. A new poll from the progressive firm Data for Progress shows how little regard New York State holds for de Blasio. Among Democratic primary voters, de Blasio has, by far, the worst favorability rating. Just 34 percent of Democrats view him favorably, compared to 60 percent that don’t. The only other Democrat who comes close is Andrew Cuomo, the disgraced former governor. Cuomo is sitting on $18 million in campaign cash and could plot a comeback. In the poll, Cuomo’s favorability rating is under water, but only by six points. Every other Democratic candidate has a net positive rating.
De Blasio is maligned for many reasons. He managed his image poorly over eight years and made numerous blunders, some significant and some picayune. He was, as I wrote in the Village Voice, “notoriously tardy, starting press conferences late, botching visits to memorials, and keeping staffers waiting while he napped in his City Hall office. He rushed to his Park Slope, Brooklyn, gym as the worst pandemic in a hundred years ravaged his city, spending much of the early days foolishly downplaying the virus’s threat.”
He faced down corruption investigations. He failed to fix Rikers, tame the city’s homelessness crisis, and too often defended brutal police work. For many voters, he was not likable and seemed to lack an interest in the job itself. He longed for a national stage beyond New York and launched a delusional presidential bid in 2019. These days, if he shows up in public anywhere long enough, he’s booed. For conservatives, he is the deeply incompetent, unhinged communist. For leftists, he is a shill for police and real estate, an awkward and contemptible figure. Both parties don’t want to see him in office anymore.
Yet few politicians, in recent times at least, have delivered like de Blasio. De Blasio’s unpopularity is either a testament to deliverism’s limits or his own deficient political skills—or perhaps both. By now, you may find this argument almost trite, but de Blasio’s creation of a universal pre-K program for New York City was incredibly significant, the first major expansion of the municipal social safety net in at least a half century. Nearly 70,000 children are enrolled in the program. The educational benefits of universal pre-K are often overstated, but it matters that thousands of New York families don’t have to pay for this kind of childcare before kindergarten any longer. De Blasio is now attempting an expansion to 3-K which Eric Adams, the incoming mayor, will be under pressure to establish.
Universal pre-K was rapidly implemented in New York. Two thousand teachers were recruited for the effort and more than 3,000 new classrooms were created in school buildings. The swiftness and scale of the program had no precedent in any large American city. De Blasio, after battling with Cuomo, secured state funding in his first year in office—he had wanted a dedicated tax hike, initially, to fund the program—and rolled out seats not long afterwards. Even his harshest critics conceded universal pre-K, as managed by his Department of Education, was successful. Other cities have looked to New York as a model. Democrats in Washington are hoping to create a federal UPK program like Head Start.
Dayen is right that Democrats, nationally, have failed to prove they can govern effectively and bring to life the policies they’ve promised on the campaign trail. Granting Medicare the ability to negotiate lower prescription drug prices was a plank of House Democratic campaigns dating back to at least to 2006. The ACA’s Medicaid expansion mattered, as did the law’s provision that healthcare providers could no longer deny coverage for preexisting conditions. But anyone who has wrangled with a healthcare exchange knows that the plans, for many, remain prohibitively expensive and come with daunting out-of-pocket costs. Obama did not greatly reform the healthcare system, which is still built around private profit and an artificial shortage of doctors. Americans don’t feel thankful for their gold, silver, or bronze plans.
On the local level, the outlook is not so gloomy. De Blasio stood up a major education expansion in a few short years and should have been rewarded wildly for it. He wasn’t. New Yorkers managed to both praise universal pre-K and benefit from it while grousing about the mayor in their midst. The residents of Albany or Buffalo or Rochester would love a similar program for their cities. Kathy Hochul should vow to deliver it now. But de Blasio, the visionary, won’t get much credit if he campaigns upstate next year. He will fail miserably in the gubernatorial primary, like he did when he ran for president. Voters do not always neatly connect people to ideas or parties to policies. Political theories may wilt in practice. Be popular and deliver, but don’t always expect the spoils.