Bloomberg Beats a Dead Horse

One of the truisms of politics is that you can’t do anything if you don’t first get elected. Consequently, the noble, high-minded possibilities afforded by a high-visibility campaign almost always take a backseat to the more immediate need to win.

Case in point: Michael Bloomberg’s spare-no-expenses, take-no-risks bid for a third term.

There was a time earlier this year when it actually seemed possible that the mayor would wage a different kind of campaign, one worthy of his bumper-sticker promise of “progress, not politics.”

By the end of this spring, it was clear that Anthony Weiner, the most politically capable of the prospective Democratic entrants, would not be running, leaving Mr. Bloomberg—with his limitless treasury, high job approval rating and army of handsomely compensated consultants from the enemy camp—to face the less imposing Bill Thompson.

The rout was on, creating an opportunity for the mayor to spend the fall shunning the platitude-intense rhetoric and slicked-up attacks that typically mark campaign season and instead devoting his time and money to engaging New Yorkers in an unusually specific dialogue about his third-term agenda. Such an approach might have led to meaningful popular mandate, one strong enough to fend off the third-term doldrums.

Needless to say, this is not at all like the campaign Mr. Bloomberg has ended up running against Mr. Thompson. The mayor’s strategy this fall has been as formulaic as it has been well funded—light on bold, provocative ideas and heavy on focus-group-approved drivel and hard-edged attack ads aimed at Mr. Thompson. (Perhaps you’ve seen one or 12 of them.)

His campaign literature, which has gummed up residents’ mailboxes for months, tells voters that Mr. Bloomberg has “stood up to the special interests,” and has “a record of results” and “a vision for the future”—claims that in no way set him apart from the 12,457,233 other candidates for offices ranging from the presidency to a local school board who have made the exact same boasts.

The same meaningless blather can be heard in his positive televisions ads, with the mayor telling New Yorkers that “we can’t afford to play games” and promising to “deliver for people, not special interests.” If the goal is to sound like the Shrummed-up Al Gore of 2000—“The people, not the powerful!”—then Mr. Bloomberg has succeeded beautifully.

But it’s his attack ads that have come to define the mayor’s fall media campaign. Within days of the September primary, when Democrats formally nominated Mr. Thompson, the Bloomberg campaign was on the air with a cookie-cutter negative ad about the candidate’s record on education, which concluded by slamming Mr. Thompson for representing “politics as usual.”

Subsequent Bloomberg ads have used (or abused, as the case may be) a comment Mr. Thompson made last October about the wisdom of increasing taxes across the board, rather than singling out high-income individuals. Again, in the world of typical campaign politics, there’s nothing wrong with this, especially since Mr. Thompson is arguing that the mayor has made life worse for middle-class New Yorkers. But that’s just the point: By obsessively focusing its media campaign on the political vulnerabilities of its opponent, the Bloomberg campaign is hewing to a depressingly conventional model.

To be sure, the mayor and his campaign have devoted some time and effort to setting specific benchmarks for his pending third term. On October 26, for instance, Mr. Bloomberg delivered a big-picture speech that his vision of New York on December 31, 2013 – what would be the last day of his administration. The speech was littered with quantitative goals: a 15 percent reduction in crime, 650,000 new trees, 840,000 fewer tons of carbon emissions from city government, and so on.

But it really broke no new ground; his plans added up to a rehash of priorities he set long ago. The section of the speech devoted to the environment, for instance, was essentially a watered-down recitation of the ambitious PlaNYC 2030 green initiative that he announced two years ago.

Bloomberg Beats a Dead Horse