Where’s the Passion In New York Politics?

New Yorkers might balk at describing their city as a hub of moderation and civility. It is, after all, loved by many people for its febrile energy and its inhabitants’ custom of leaving no elbow unthrown.

When it comes to politics, though, the picture is very different. The city-like the state beyond-seems startlingly harmonious, at least by comparison with the rest of the nation.

Out There, Howard Dean-a man whose name is antonymous with subtlety-described Republicans as “brain-dead” at the height of the Terri Schiavo controversy. Senator Bill Frist appeared in a telecast that suggests the Democrats are “against people of faith.”

The halls of Congress echo with talk of a “nuclear” option, while across the heartlands, the words “Democrat” and “liberal” or “Republican” and “conservative” are spat out like accusations.

And in New York? The city’s Republican Mayor dollops praise upon Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. For her part, Mrs. Clinton determinedly lays claim to the middle ground, empathizing with pro-lifers, upstate Republicans and other erstwhile foes. In Albany, Governor George Pataki steers a pragmatic course.

The red state/blue state nation is a reality, up to a point. But in New York, despite a built-in Democratic majority, the colors run, mix and meld.

This phenomenon is partly traceable, of course, to the idiosyncratic figure of Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire famously changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in order to run for office in 2001. But his blurring of party boundaries didn’t stop there.

He’s hosted a number of fund-raisers for Democratic politicians and also employs more than a few.

The Mayor’s ideological elasticity enabled him to support both President George W. Bush and Senator Schumer in their 2004 re-election bids. In March, asked on NY1 whether he might endorse Senator Clinton for re-election, Mr. Bloomberg could have demurred. Instead, he said: “Party lines aren’t anywhere near as important to me as my responsibility to do what’s right for the public.”

“There is nothing Republican about Michael Bloomberg,” insists Thomas Ognibene, the former City Council minority leader who is challenging Mr. Bloomberg for the G.O.P.’s Mayoral nomination. “He wasn’t ever interested in building a Republican agenda.”

Mr. Bloomberg may be the epitome of what G.O.P. hardliners scathingly refer to as a “RINO”-a Republican In Name Only. RINO’s are an endangered species in the rest of the country, but they have long roamed freely in New York-even if they were once known by more respectful appellations.

Fiorello LaGuardia, Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay and Jacob Javits were all elected as liberal Republicans. None of them could have marched in lockstep with today’s G.O.P. vanguard.

“In some senses, politics in New York hasn’t changed at all,” said Prof. Doug Muzzio of Baruch College’s Center for Innovation and Leadership in Government. “The country has changed around it.”

New York’s Republicans may have a tradition of moderation. The local Democratic Party, by contrast, has tended to produce liberal icons like Mario Cuomo.

Now, an unusual confluence of factors-from the continuing reverberations of Sept. 11 to the pained debate about moral values that followed last year’s Presidential election-has made many Democrats keen to cleave to the center. Both of New York’s Senators have been hawkish on security and the war in Iraq. Both have tried to reach out to Republican voters. And both have their own strategic reasons for staying away from the political extremes. In particular, Mrs. Clinton still needs to dispel the ultra-liberal image that clung to her during the White House years if her anticipated run for the Presidency is to have any chance of success.

“Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer are clearly partisans in certain ways,” Professor Muzzio said, “but we’re not talking about Barbara Boxer and Dennis Kucinich here.”

The overall lesson seems clear: In New York, unlike most of the rest of the country, moderation and self-interest often go hand-in-hand. But has the consequent rush to the middle served voters well?

The evidence looks promising. The state budget has just been passed punctually for the first time in 21 years. In the city, the Mayor has dealt with crises-from budgets to schools-without igniting a firestorm. City and state politics have been mostly free of the enmity that has bogged down the workings of the U.S. Congress.

But not everyone is happy. To some politicians, the new comity is a disaster. They say it limits voter choice, dilutes ideological purity and undermines the two-party system itself.

“There is no core. What agenda are people running on?” Mr. Ognibene asked in exasperation. “If we [Republicans] just want to have winners, why don’t we give the Republican line to Hillary Clinton?

“There’s not a Republican in this state who can beat her. And if we’re not interested in standing for something, why not just give it to her?” Where’s the Passion In New York Politics?