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The Return of John Lindsay

When John Lindsay died eleven years ago this month, hardly anyone apart from the obituary writers paid any attention. He had long been out of the public eye, and he is now almost entirely forgotten. But I remember, and we could all, I think, learn a little something from considering his trajectory – for it casts light on the path followed by our current President.

Lindsay was the original limousine liberal. He attended the Buckley School in the city of New York, St. Paul’s up in New Hampshire, and, as an undergraduate, Yale; and he went on to take a law degree at his alma mater – before meeting his wife at the wedding of a sister of George W. H. Bush (where he was an usher and she, a bridesmaid), and then entering Republican politics in the city of New York as a founder of Youth for Eisenhower in 1951 and, soon thereafter, as president of the city’s Young Republican Club – where he caught the eye of Herbert Brownell, who became Eisenhower’s Attorney General in 1953 and hired Lindsay as his executive assistant.

obamamirror-1.jpgIn 1958, with Brownell’s help, Lindsay was elected to Congress as a Republican from the Silk Stocking District, and seven years later he ran for Mayor of the city of New York on the Republican and Liberal lines and defeated William F. Buckley (who ran a memorable, if quixotic campaign as a Conservative) as well as a lackluster Democratic hack named Abraham Beame. Four years thereafter, Lindsay lost the Republican nomination to state Senator John J. Marchi (who had the support of Buckley and the Conservative Party). But he nonetheless ran again on the Liberal line and as an Independent, and he managed to eke out a victory with forty-two percent of the vote when the Democrats nominated the relatively conservative Mario Procaccino, and this Lindsay accomplished by putting together an alliance of upscale whites, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and liberal Jews.

JohnLindsay2.jpgIn 1971, Lindsay re-registered as a Democrat, and the following year he took a shot at the Democratic Presidential nomination. In that year, a Gallup poll showed that 60% of New Yorkers had a negative view of his administration while 9% thought that he was doing all right and no one thought his performance excellent. By 1978, he was, as The New York Times reported, “an exile in his own city.” And when he sought the Democratic nomination for the Senate in 1980, his candidacy went nowhere. Long before that, the left-liberal mantra was that John Lindsay was the sort of fellow who gave a good cause a bad name.

I did not have a ringside seat for all of this, but I was in the arena – in the back row – much of the time. In 1967, the year after Lindsay first became Mayor, I was a freshman at Cornell and a columnist The Cornell Daily Sun. Four years later, I graduated from Yale, where Lindsay, who was riding high in those years, was a member of the Yale Corporation. I was out of the country, at Oxford, when Lindsay made his run for the Democratic presidential nomination, but I followed his progress with great interest from afar. And I was back at Yale as a graduate student in time to witness the fiscal crisis that engulfed the city of New York in 1975 and 1976.

AbrahamBeame.jpgBy that time, of course, Lindsay had skipped out, and he had left Abraham Beame, who was elected Mayor in 1973, holding the bag. There was some justice to this, given that Beame had been City Comptroller during Lindsay’s second term, when the spending was completely out of control. Everyone knew, however, that it was Lindsay who had spent the city into the ground. In 1967, the city budget was $4.6 billion; in 1971, it was $7.8 billion. By 1974, the year Beame took over, it was $10 billion. Lindsay introduced the city’s first income tax and commuter tax, but the revenues he raised were never enough. By 1974, the annual budget deficit had climbed to $1.5 billion. Fred Siegel got it right when he described Lindsay as the worst Mayor New York had in the twentieth century and went on to remark that he “wasn’t incompetent or foolish or corrupt, but he was actively destructive.”

Lindsay’s natural constituency was the socially liberal WASP elite and those within the Jewish community who had joined them at the top of the social pyramid or aspired to do so. To win election and re-election as Mayor, he had to hold onto that constituency, split the Democratic Party, and win over one of the more substantial elements composing it. This he did by driving a wedge between working-class and lower middle class whites, on the one hand, and African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, on the other – and he managed to attract support from the latter by massively expanding the welfare rolls and increasing dramatically the patronage that found its way into their hands. To secure his re-election, Lindsay was prepared to bring the city to its knees.

ObamaHopeProgress.jpgIn the last three years, I have had frequent occasion to think of John Lindsay – for the political machine that he patched together was the forerunner of the coalition that elected Barack Obama President. In the interim between 1973, when Lindsay’s tenure as Mayor ended, and 2011, upscale Americans had gone the way of upscale New Yorkers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like Lindsay’s supporters in the Silk Stocking District, they were for the most part a product of the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters, and other colleges and universities of similar stature, and, like them, they had embraced all of the fashionable causes. They supported abortion and endorsed gay rights. They had fallen prey to the most ridiculous forms of environmental alarmism, and they had come to regard religious Americans of all stripes, small businessmen, and white ethnic working stiffs with an almost undisguised contempt.

By the Clinton years, many of these upscale voters had crossed over to the Democratic Party, and a majority of them actually voted for John Kerry in 2004. It was not hard for Barack Obama to lure nearly all of those who had voted for Kerry into his camp. After all, he was one of them. He had attended a fancy prep school in Hawaii, then Occidental College, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School. If he had flirted with an old Weatherman would-be terrorist like Bill Ayers and had attached himself to the racist minister Jeremiah Wright, it made him seem just a tad exotic and all the more chic. He was the new millennium’s answer to John Lindsay – handsome, charming, and oh so debonair! If he was not “a matinee-idol who hobnobbed with the stars” (to steal a line from Lindsay’s obituary in The New York Times), he surely came close. His upscale supporters were not so coarse as to say what old Joe Biden said – that Barack Obama was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” But they understood what he meant, and they agreed with him when he added, “That’s a storybook, man!”

ObamaGW.jpgObama was less attractive to working-class whites and small businessmen. They had never been comfortable with the limousine liberals. They had voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980, and they were wary of Obama. Everything that made him seem chic to upscale Americans made them suspicious. Even before he was caught telling some supporters in San Francisco that, under economic duress, the folks who live in small towns in Pennsylvania and the Midwest “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” they sensed that, like most of those in America who thought of themselves as intellectuals, Barack Obama harbored contempt for them, and they rallied to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy because they envisaged her husband as one of their own. Public-sector workers and African-Americans were more friendly to Obama. The former recognized in him a champion of government growth, and the latter came to see him – if not as one of their own – as a reasonable facsimile thereof. Even more to the point, they suspected that he shared their sense of grievance.

It was not hard for Barack Obama to beat John McCain. The latter had once been a lion, but by 2008 he was old, and he was not at the top of his game. Moreover, the Republicans were demoralized. The Bush years and the years in which Dennis Hastert was Speaker of the House did not inspire enthusiasm. But, given the suspicion that Obama inspired in certain parts of the old New Deal Democratic coalition, John McCain would perhaps have been able to eke out a victory had it not been for the economic crisis that arrived on the eve of the election. Even then, however, McCain ran ahead of his party in most states. Many working-class whites and many small businessmen suspected that, if Obama were elected, they would get the short end of the stick – as, indeed, they have.

obamabidenhugedetail-600x422.jpgIn 2008, it was easy enough to see that Obama was not friendly to the sectors in the economy where working stiffs found jobs. All that you had to do is look with some care. Care is now no longer necessary. Time and again, the administration has made decisions adverse to the interest of ordinary working men. The decision to delay the construction of the Keystone Pipeline is only the most recent in a long string of decisions harmful to economic growth. When it comes to environmental alarmism, Barack Obama is a true believer.

So, we should not be surprised to learn that the leaders of the Democratic Party have decided to follow John Lindsay in writing off the white working class. Here is the way Jay Cost describes Obama’s re-election strategy:

Across a series of news articles (e.g., this story by Jackie Calmes and Mark Landler and this one by Jim Rutenberg), blog posts (e.g., this piece by Thomas Edsall and this one by Josh Kraushaar), and analyses (e.g., this paper by Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers), it has become clear how Team Obama sees a path to reelection.

Essentially, it all comes down to three big goals:

1. Do as well with the non-white vote as Obama did in 2008, with the expectation that it continues to increase as a share of the total electorate.

2. Hold steady with upscale white voters, who tend to be more focused on quality of life issues like environmentalism.

3. Mitigate losses among the white working class, but expect to lose this group once again.

So this would be a path to 270 electoral votes that might include Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia (which historically have been Republican) but not Ohio (a quadrennial swing state) or even Pennsylvania (which historically has been Democratic).

In effect, what Obama and his advisors plan to do is to abandon once and for all the old New Deal coalition and forge a new governing coalition resembling the one that John Lindsay put together in the city of New York – i.e., a coalition of upscale voters and minorities with some support from young people of the sort who were carried away by Lindsay’s glamor.

Cost thinks this strategy unlikely to be effective, and he lays out his argument in detail. As he reminds us, what might work in California and Virginia will not work elsewhere. For example, “Roughly half of Obama’s voters in the key Midwestern swing states were in the white working class.” If Obama’s support drops to any degree in this demographic – and his party’s support dropped dramatically in this demographic in the midterm elections in 2010 – he will be in trouble in Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa. Right now, as Cost points out, if the polling data can be trusted, two-thirds of those within this segment of the population disapprove of Obama’s conduct in office. That was the percentage of working-class voters who went with the Republicans in these states in 2010.

To this, Cost adds that Obama is not likely to do as well with Hispanics in 2012 as he did in 2008 and that affluent Americans have been hit hard by the economic downturn and find The One less mesmerizing than they did at that time. Obama lost the latter group to McCain by a negligible margin of four percentage points. Sixty-five percent of college graduates without graduate degrees now disapprove of his handling of public affairs, and a majority of those with advanced degrees share their opinion.

It is, of course, possible that the Republican Party will hand Obama another victory. None of the figures seeking the Republican presidential nomination inspires confidence. All are either inept in some obvious way or have baggage that voters might find off-putting, and the one most likely to be effective in debating the President has the most baggage. It is easy to see how Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich can be demonized.

But I nonetheless think that the Republicans are likely to win. The John Lindsay coalition is an exceedingly fragile one. One might even say that it is apt to self-destruct. The material interests of upscale voters and those of Americans dependent on government largesse do not coincide, and in a time of straitened circumstances and widespread unemployment the tensions between those who pay the bulk of the taxes collected and those on the take are apt to be extreme. How many upscale voters want to see their taxes dramatically increased in the near future? It may not be bread alone that determines voting patterns in the US, but during economic downturns such concerns loom especially large. I could easily imagine a new coalition taking shape – one that unites upscale voters, working stiffs, and small businessmen against public-sector workers and those who live off government patronage. Such a coalition, forged in a time of suffering, might last a very long time, and, if it did, the number of public-sector workers and of those living off government patronage would steadily decline.

To this analysis, we can add one more item. Barack Obama has done for the United States what John Lindsay did for the city of New York. He has brought us to the edge of bankruptcy, and he has made us look into the abyss – and he has compounded the problem by saddling us with Obamacare, which grows less popular with time. Moreover, one cannot say with regard to the administration that brought us the Fast and Furious and Solyndra scandals that it has not been “incompetent or foolish or corrupt.” One can say, however, that it has been “actively destructive.”

I have said it before, and I will say it again. Barack Obama is a gift to the friends of liberty. He is the sort of man who gives a bad cause a bad name.

More By Paul A. Rahe