New Yorkers have never been more bored with politics. Love him or hate him (and indeed, most New Yorkers revel in doing one or the other), Mayor Giuliani has succeeded: he has transformed New York City from a dysfunctional mess into a community worthy of emulation. Indeed, the consensus among public policy analysts seems to be that Giuliani's program should be diligently studied as a "how-to guide" for urban renewal. To make matters worse for those who enjoy a good political brawl, the Mayor's opponent, Ruth W. Messinger '62, seems to give new meaning to the word "colorless." Put all of this together, and you get a city sleep-walking toward election day.
Fortunately, however, the election has retained a modicum of intrigue thanks to its status as a testing ground for a developing liberal response to Republican governance. It all began in late summer, when a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima was brutalized by New York City police officers. The officers attacked him savagely, first beating him and then sodomizing him with a toilet plunger. During the incident, one of the officers allegedly remarked, "It's Giuliani time,"suggesting that the Mayor had embraced a laissez faire attitude toward police brutality. Finally, the embattled New York liberals had their issue.
Regardless of the fact that the Mayor explicitly condemned the action and launched a full investigation into it, his opponents succeeded in portraying the Louima case as evidence of a dark, unseemly element in Giuliani's New York. Al Sharpton and Messinger, then the Mayor's two principle Democratic opponents, attacked Giuliani for his anti-crime zeal, framing the issue of "law and order" as a battle between crime prevention and the safety of the underprivileged--a battle in which the Mayor was on the wrong side. According to them, the fact of the Louima case somehow counterbalanced all the progress that had been made on the crime prevention front, and they held Giuliani responsible.
But since then, the Mayor's opponents have done far more than simply insist on an indefensible moral equivalence between a 60 percent decline in violent crime and the brutalization of a single man. In the aftermath of the Louima incident, the liberal camp has devised a more comprehensive "spin" on New York's renewal in general, one with far wider potential application. The liberals now attack New York's unprecedented success in fighting crime by arguing that crime prevention is for the white and wealthy. They frame the situation as follows: the police protect the privileged and beat the poor to achieve their ends. New York is now one of the safest cities in America--but safest for whom?
The Mayor's opponents then follow this reasoning further, taking crime prevention as a metonymy, a part for the whole. They insist that the Mayor's "law and order" stance simply reflects the sensibilities of his broader program for New York. Therefore, all his initiatives are tainted: quality of life improvements are for the rich, parks restoration is for the rich, tax reforms are for the rich, neighborhood renewal programs are for the rich. I'm just waiting for the Yankees' World Championship title to be dismissed as yet another perk.
The attack on crime prevention, then, has become a vehicle for a comprehensive attack on urban renewal itself. Any progress cities make, you see, must favor the rich. The liberals have shown their cards: one of their new lines of attack will be to simply dismiss urban renewal prima facie as running contrary to the interests of their primary constituencies. And, although the Mayor seems sure to win this particular election, this new argument appears to be an "up-and-comer."
How sad, then, that those constituencies which seem so eager to accept the liberal logic have been among the primary beneficiaries of the Mayor's programs. Who benefits from the revitalization of Jamaica, Harlem, Astoria, Prospect Park and so many other neighborhoods? Who benefits from businesses and jobs returning to the City after decades of economic hemorrhaging? Who are the thousands of New Yorkers alive today who would have been dead had status quo remained in place? I guarantee that Donald Trump is not among them.
Eric M. Nelson's column appears on alternate Mondays.