Friday, October 24, 2008

Bad Vote on Term Limits

Somewhere, the ghosts of Tammany Hall sachems are laughing at the chicanery and irony of it all. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who long posed as a man above the pettiness of politics, has dodged the city's voters and figured out how to get a shot at a third term in City Hall. The Daily News calls this "A win for democracy." I call it an abuse of lawmaking and a sad day for democracy.

As I have said here before, term limits are a terrible idea. They substitute law and timetables for the voters' judgment. But if we are going to get rid of them, let's get rid of them openly and fairly, in the same kind of public referendum where they were voted in. But that wasn't enough of a quick thing or a sure thing, so the mayor pushed for legislation in the City Council. He got it. Term limits have been permanently extended from twelve years to eight, although the bill passed by 29-22, a narrower margin than expected.

The vote reflects a certain lack of courage in the council. Our city, and the world, are in a financial crisis. That frightens lawmakers, so they reached for a way to keep in office a mayor who impresses them as fiscally astute. (Never mind the groaning levels of inequality that are part of the Bloomberg years.)

The eagerness to keep Bloomberg is the great man theory of history in action. New Yorkers have embraced this idea since Rudy Giuliani won credit for bringing down crime. But giving all credit to one mayor, on crime or finance, underestimates the strong contributions of the rest of the city.

No one is indispensable. As Charles de Gaulle once observed, cemeteries are full of indispensable men. Given a choice between honest law and keeping Bloomberg, we could have showed Bloomberg out the door and allowed him to stay on as a dollar a year man to advise the next mayor on financial matters. But that would not have satisfied the mayor.

While the history of Bloomberg's mayoralty is yet to be written, the council vote yesterday underscores a tendency of Bloomberg's that needs to be recognized in any long-term evaluation of the man: his contempt for democracy.

Bloomberg would counter, of course, that he has contempt for politics. But in a democracy, as E.J. Dionne has observed, people who hold contempt for politics eventually wind up living in something other than a democracy. That is what is happening to us today in New York City.

For a long time, Bloomberg has impressed me as a character straight out of the technocratic strain of the Progressive Era: a top hat reformer who values corporate-style efficiency and technocratic government over democracy and social justice. I still think that holds. But in his connivance with the City Council to prolong his chance of staying in City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg ran away from the law and the will of the people like any ordinary ward heeler.

There will be challenges to this in the courts, and there is no guarantee that Bloomberg will be re-elected. But on the morning after the City Council vote on term limits, New York looks like a city afraid of its own future and afraid of governing by the will of the voters.

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