The Right’s Ideas Matter, Even in Mayoral Races

It is not true that every editor of National Review must run for Mayor of New York. William F. Buckley

Jr., who founded the magazine, ran as a Conservative in 1965, and Rich Lowry,

who edits it today, is considering a run this year. But John O’Sullivan, who

served in between them, never pined for City Hall. The fact that he is a

subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II may have been a factor in his lack of

interest. But foreign citizenship should be no bar to a political career in the

gorgeous mosaic.

Since Rich Lowry is still deciding whether or not to run, I

have not done anything so vulgar as question him. We (I’m a senior editor at

the magazine) are a small journal of opinion of conservative views; we can slap

down John McCain, David Geffen or Richard Rorty without a qualm, but we have

certain standards which we honor. I can, however, legitimately ask what the

prospects for conservative politics are in New York City generally.

Begin with the Republican Party. Mayor Giuliani is a

Republican by accident. He began his adult life as a Democrat, and in his first

year in office, he campaigned for Mario Cuomo for Governor. He is not a

politician, but a centurion; 2,000 years ago, his ancestors drilled recruits,

slaughtered Goths and crucified thieves. What does he know from deals and

double-talk? As his time ran out, anxious Republicans hoped he would groom a

successor. But the most potent veteran of the Giuliani administration is Bill

Bratton, who hates him, and who is allied with Democrat Mark Green. This is not

the profile of a party builder.

But in fairness, what could the Republican Party offer

Rudolph Giuliani in this city, apart from a ballot line? Con men sometimes find

it convenient to assume the identities of dead people, but they don’t want to

be dead themselves. Fiorello LaGuardia, another nominal Republican Mayor, liked

to say there is no Republican or Democratic way to collect the garbage; what he

meant was, there is no Republican way to do anything successful here, so those

who wear the label must blur partisan identification or be trampled.

In the early 60’s, the Conservative Party argued that this

diagnosis was self-fulfilling; opportunism, they said, works only for

occasional opportunists. Conservative politicians could successfully appeal to New

Yorkers by offering principled solutions to New York’s problems. Mr. Buckley

made the ideal debut run for such a strategy in 1965. Facing John Lindsay,

Republican and Liberal, and Abraham Beame, Democrat, he got only 13.4 percent

of the vote, but an easy third of the attention. The payoff year should have

been 1969: Mayor Lindsay, reduced to the Liberal line, had been a gorgeous

failure. The front-runner for the Democratic nomination was Herman Badillo,

then a figure of the left. White ethnics had not yet completed their flight to

Long Island or New Jersey, but they had slipped loose from their Democratic

moorings. John Marchi, a state senator from Staten Island who had both the

Conservative and the G.O.P. lines, might have scooped them up in a three-man

race. The wrench in the works was Norman Mailer, who siphoned enough white

liberal votes from Mr. Badillo to give the Democratic nod to Mario Procaccino,

a relatively conservative Democrat. Running against two ethnics to his right,

the last WASP won again.

So 1969 was the last game for that game plan. The Irish and

the Italians hemorrhaged away; Jews stuck around a little longer and had their

fling with Ed Koch, who was as far to the right as they would ever go anyway.

The Conservative Party joined the G.O.P. in the cellar of nullity.

When Mr. Giuliani made his freakish run, his backup line was

provided not by the Conservative Party, but by the Liberals. There was

excellent reason for them to do so. Mr. Giuliani is as pro-abortion as Bill

Clinton and more strongly for gay rights and gun control. But classifying Mr.

Giuliani by adding up issues, left and right, does not measure intensity, for

the one issue he cared most about-even more than dung Madonnas-was crime. Which

is better, from a conservative point of view: to back a right-leaning wimp who

does nothing, or an enemy who does one important thing well? George Pataki or

Rudy Giuliani?

Where does that leave New York conservatives now? They can

fight the war of ideas apart from politics, as the Manhattan Institute does

with considerable success. An aspect of this strategy is smuggling good ideas

to impressionable Democrats. Mark Green says he has learned things about

policing he never knew before. Since he began life as a protégé of Ralph Nader,

he had much to learn, but give him credit for trying. On the Republican side,

Michael Bloomberg wants to show what a lot of money and a few ideas will get

you. (Answer: less money than you started out with.) Herman Badillo has moved

from being Norman Mailer’s unhappy dance partner to being the champion of

standards at City University. He still wants to be Mayor. He has put in his

time; has time passed him by?

Then there is my boss at

National Review. The fact that Rich Lowry was born and raised in Virginia

should be no problem, after 2000. Next to our junior Senator, he is as Old New

York as Mrs. Astor. He has lived and worked in the city; he knows how to get to

Yankee Stadium; he is actually a Yankees fan. The Daily News recently claimed that Mrs. Clinton’s husband could win

a Mayoral election. A campaign by Bubba would be reason enough to hope that

Rich would run. Imagine him saying: “All we want from you, Mr. President, is a

promise that if labor negotiations bog down, you won’t bomb the Sudanese

consulate.”

Conservatives do well to struggle for New York, however

hopeless their efforts. This-not Washington, nor even Los Angeles-is still the

talk and image capital of the nation. If you fake it here, you can make it

anywhere. New York should also hope that conservatives make the effort.

Liberalism and confidence once reigned here hand in hand, but that was a long

time ago. We are in many ways a static city in a shrinking state. Outsiders,

from small towns and other countries, have often done well by us. Strange ideas

could help, too.