Running From the Embrace of America’s Mayor

Eight years ago at this time, after he’d thrown more than $50 million at the mayoral race but still found himself trailing Mark Green by 16 points, Michael Bloomberg bet the farm on Rudy Giuliani, scoring a last-minute endorsement from the outgoing mayor and blanketing the airwaves with a 60-second testimonial from him.

It was all upside: 9/11 had transformed Mr. Giuliani into an exalted figure in New York, where voters, longing for a confident, familiar hand in dark times, were ready to follow his lead. Without Rudy, there would be no Mayor Mike.

That was then.

Today, Mr. Bloomberg is seeking a third term, and if you want to appreciate just how much he’s grown out of his predecessor’s shadow-and how much that shadow has shrunk since 2001-look no further than the events of the past week.

First, there was the New York 1 mayoral debate, when Mr. Bloomberg and Democrat Bill Thompson were asked if Mr. Giuliani would make a good governor. The question came during the much-mocked (but much-discussed) “lightning round,” when candidates must provide a yes/no answer.

Mr. Thompson didn’t hesitate to say no. Mr. Bloomberg, looking not entirely happy to be cornered on such a question, managed an unenthusiastic yes.

In a way, it called to mind his grudging admission in 2004 that he’d voted for George W. Bush for president. As a registered Republican back then (and one who had lobbied hard to land the G.O.P. convention for New York), Mr. Bloomberg had little choice but to support the president. But he had nothing to gain by broadcasting this in a city where John Kerry snagged 74 percent of the vote, so he stayed quiet until he was forced to address the topic.

Likewise, after squandering much of his post-9/11 political capital on a presidential run, Mr. Giuliani has become something of a liability with the New York electorate.

Seeking to win the trust of national conservatives, he systematically moved away from the (selectively) liberal brand of Republicanism he practiced in New York. And after his White House campaign flamed out, he embraced the role of attack dog for his friend John McCain, savaging Barack Obama (another local favorite) in a sneering speech at last summer’s G.O.P. convention and on the campaign trail last fall. Mr. Giuliani hasn’t relented in his attacks now that the campaign is over.  

And he remains as bluntly divisive as ever.

This was evident on Sunday, when Mr. Giuliani told an all-white, heavily Jewish audience in Borough Park that he worried “daily” that “the city might be turned back…to the way it was before 1993. And you know exactly what I’m talking about.” (’93, of course, was when Mr. Giuliani defeated David Dinkins to win the mayoralty.)

The comment was vintage Rudy. In the ’90s, he derived tremendous political success from pitting people who knew exactly what he was talking about against those who didn’t. His style made plenty of voters uneasy, but a plummeting crime rate silenced them-at least until his final few years in office, when his cruel indifference to the appalling excesses of his police force became too much for them.

But even then, New Yorkers were schizophrenic about Mr. Giuliani. Just before 9/11, polls showed voters happy to see him going-even though they wanted the next mayor to follow his policies. Maybe it takes a jerk like Rudy to keep the streets safe, they seemed to be saying.

Mr. Bloomberg, as mayor, has emphatically refuted that notion. The city is as safe as it was under Mr. Giuliani (safer, even), but the tension between City Hall and minority groups has eased considerably.

In that sense, Mr. Giuliani’s Borough Park fear-mongering feels utterly anachronistic. He was speaking as part of a two-event campaign swing with the mayor (which the mayor’s team-tellingly-didn’t promote heavily). In 2001, Mr. Bloomberg might have responded by grabbing a megaphone and shouting, in effect, “Yeah, what he said!” But when Mr. Giuliani’s comment made news this week, the mayor ignored it and tried to change the subject-dreading, no doubt, the two other joint appearances the pair are scheduled to make before Election Day.

  Running From the Embrace of America’s Mayor