New York’s Mayor doesn’t “do” anger very well.
When Michael Bloomberg tries to deal in the righteous indignation that is the standard currency of many politicians, the results are unconvincing.
“Angry Mike,” like the “Jolly Mike” who backslapped and high-fived his way through a succession of TV ads during his re-election campaign, usually seems contrived.
Still, Mr. Bloomberg has his moments. In recent months, one proposal has brought him to rare heights of rage. He has described it as “disgusting,” “an absolute disgrace” and—during last week’s Mayoral radio address—“an outrage.”
A matter of life and death? Hardly. Mr. Bloomberg is indignant about the possibility that the New York City Council will increase the term limits for its members to 12 years from the current eight.
He could surely have found a target more deserving of his wrath.
The fervor for term limits began to sweep the nation at the start of the 1990’s. The tide reached New York in 1993.
A referendum on the issue, backed by wealthy former Mayoral candidate Ronald S. Lauder, was passed. It forced the departure of the Mayor, City Comptroller, Public Advocate and City Council members after two consecutive terms. The term limits were upheld by voters three years later.
The subject continues to roil the city’s civic life. The Council is expected to consider extending the limits when its new term starts in January. Of the seven candidates for Speaker, none has ruled out an extension. Six have declared their support.
The Council’s position is wide open to populist attack. A receptive audience can always be found for snarky accusations that politicians are feathering their own nests in defiance of the people.
The reality is different from the caricature.
For a start, it is doubtful whether the Council has the legal power to instigate a referendum on term limits. Hofstra law professor Eric Lane, a special counsel to the current Speaker, is adamant that it has no such authority.
If that is correct, the case for term limits need only be judged on its merits. And it doesn’t have many.
Those in favor of term limits argue that incumbents hold a surfeit of electoral advantages.
They add that enforced retirements help bring new blood into the body politic and cleanse it of the career politician, an archetype held to be both sclerotic and despicable.
But while incumbency brings benefits in any election, it is easy to overestimate them. Just ask slain New York giants like Mario Cuomo or Al D’Amato.
Secondly, the idea that term limits lead to the replacement of tired old hacks with people who are free of the “taint” of politics is demonstrably untrue.
The overwhelming majority of current Council members are still part of a recognizable political culture. Many won their seats after serving time in lower office or on the staff of established politicos.
There is nothing wrong with that. The single most corrosive element in the case for term limits is the notion that being a politician is ipso facto a bad thing.
“The word ‘politician’ is a pejorative word to most New Yorkers and most Americans,” said Professor Doug Muzzio of CUNY’s Baruch College. “But I don’t think of it that way. I believe politics is an ennobling activity.”
The suspicion with which long-serving politicians are treated is symptomatic of a broader problem in American life. The idea that change and newness trump continuity and experience has infected every branch of society.
According to Anne Vittoria, associate professor of sociology at SUNY Cortland, one pervasive—and dangerous—school of thought holds that “anything older has a defect in it and is less captivating than something that is new.”
Eric Lane told Wise Guys that “unless you accept that there is something intrinsically good about new people, I don’t see the value in [term limits]. There are always going to be bad eggs in the world. But they are just as likely to be bad eggs when they are newly elected.”
The popularity of term limits, Mr. Lane added, is fueled by a “utopian American reform mind-set that instinctively dislikes people who hold power, without any thought as to the consequences of that idea.”
Among the potential consequences: the disengagement of large swaths of the public from political life and a tendency to elect representatives on the basis not of their professionalism, but of their amateurishness.
Maturity may never be more fashionable than freshness. The concept of a steady hand may never be more compelling than radical change.
Above all, the idea that some politicians are—whisper it!—effective advocates and honorable people may never rally the crowd like a call to kick the bums out.
But term limits do the exact opposite of what their supporters claim. Purporting to increase choice, they instead deprive the electorate of politicians who are willing and able to serve.
The case to loosen the restraints is compelling.