Opinion: de Blasio’s Clinton miscalculation

If politicians view their presidential endorsements as currency, then the value of Bill de Blasio’s endorsement is dropping as precipitously as the euro. 

To be sure, the value of any big-name endorsement during campaign cycles has always been debatable. Political scientists tend to agree that these endorsements don’t do much for a candidate in terms of moving votes, but can be effective as a stamp of legitimacy.

As a former political operative, de Blasio understands this reality better than most. After all, the mayor won the 2013 election with hardly any star political supporters (no, Alec Baldwin and Cynthia Nixon don’t count) – a testament to a campaign that seized on an income inequality narrative that resonated with voters, but also benefited from the blunders of his Democratic rivals and paltry voter turnout.

Now a national kingmaker, at least in his own mind, de Blasio appears content to wring every last drop of importance out of his pending presidential endorsement. What began as an arguably shrewd political calculation to withhold his support for Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton (whose 2000 Senate campaign de Blasio managed) until she demonstrated support for an income inequality agenda, has instead turned into a complete farce.

The mayor’s tap dance around the Clinton endorsement has become the political equivalent of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown. Since his initial non-endorsement in April, de Blasio has been asked at least a half-dozen times by local and national media when he plans to lend his support.

Over that time, de Blasio’s answer has morphed from, “It’s time to see a clear, bold vision for progressive economic change,” to a familiar refrain most recently heard on CNBC’s “Squawk Box”: “I’ve been very impressed by what Hillary Clinton’s put out. And I’ve said this, I think with each passing week, she has added to her vision in a compelling manner. And I give her a lot of credit for that. There’s still a few areas where I think we have to fill in the blanks and get a better sense of where things are going.”

The calculus behind de Blasio’s non-endorsement is not quite as simple as waiting to hear dovetailing rhetoric from Clinton on progressive values. While the mayor has several major legislative accomplishments here in New York City to boast of – universal pre-K, paid sick leave, municipal IDs for immigrants living here illegally – he is clearly preoccupied by his standing nationally and abroad.

When the news broke two weeks ago that de Blasio intended to host a Democratic presidential forum in Iowa – 1,000 miles away from New York City – political observers were hardly surprised. This is the same mayor who has made four trips to Europe in the past 20 months, with a trip to Israel also on the docket, but has yet to conduct a single town hall in the city he runs. (The mayor's office disputed this fact, noting de Blasio will be holding a rent-related town hall on Wednesday, and conducted a "parent night" with 100 public school parents two weeks ago.)

In fact, it’s quite possible that the Iowa forum and subsequent national exposure – which has no date, venue or commitment from any of the Democratic candidates – is the reason behind de Blasio’s hesitation to endorse a candidate.

“I really think he wants this forum on income equality, and if he is partisan he won't get a forum,” said George Arzt, a political consultant and former press secretary to Mayor Ed Koch. “I don't know what he is aiming for with his maneuvering, but the Hillary folks could not be happy with him. He should take Tip O'Neill's adage to heart ­– ‘All politics is local’ – and keep an eye on delivering services to his base rather than be a captive of his national ambitions.”

It’s hardly a novel concept for a New York mayor or governor to keep one eye trained on the White House. Seemingly every governor and mayor of the last 30 years not scarred by scandal (sorry, Govs. Spitzer and Paterson) flirted with a presidential run. But sifting through those egos and personalities of New York’s past, there were those whose political star rose organically, and those who elevated themselves out of delusions of grandeur.

The late Mario Cuomo famously dipped his feet in the presidential campaign waters several times, but the speculation came on the heels of his iconic 1984 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, and after having helped move the state toward economic prosperity after the fiscal quagmire of the late 1970s. 

Cuomo deftly balanced his national ambitions with his borderline compulsive need to attend to matters at home. He endorsed the 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale early in the campaign, setting the stage for his keynote speech, and while no one would have begrudged Cuomo seizing on his newfound national stardom to launch his own campaign in 1988, he instead used his clout to host Democratic presidential forums – in New York – to allow voters in his home state an opportunity to engage the candidates.

“(Cuomo) would set up the forums and observe, and various people thinking about running for president could come to New York to court his favor,” said Bill Cunningham, a political consultant who helped organize one of the forums as a member of the state Democratic Committee. “Maybe Mayor de Blasio remembers that things like this have happened before, but they’re usually done with a little bit more public planning and forethought.”

Cunningham believes that de Blasio may have overplayed his hand by dangling his endorsement of Clinton before getting his Iowa forum set in stone. For one thing, if Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the two major Democratic candidates, do not agree to attend, de Blasio could be left with egg (or corn) on his face, damaging his national brand. There is also a political risk if the mayor intends to use the forum as a barometer for his endorsement.

“If (Clinton) has a bad showing (in Iowa), his endorsement becomes worthless. If she has a great showing, his endorsement is devalued because she doesn’t really need it,” Cunningham said. “It will be whatever comes out of the event itself.”

There are also whispers that de Blasio views his Clinton (or Sanders) endorsement as a purely transactional play to angle for a new job. Twenty months into his mayoralty, it’s clear that de Blasio has little appetite for being a manager, so perhaps he sees the Democratic National Committee (or a Cabinet post) as a pathway out of City Hall to a truly national platform.

As DNC chairman or a member of a Clinton/Sanders Cabinet, he would be freed from the mundane details of managing a major city and could spread his progressive gospel or effect change with a national scope.

Of course, there’s always the issue of precedent – no sitting mayor has ever become DNC chairperson, and current Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx was the first sitting mayor in over 30 years to take a cabinet position. And for a mayor of arguably the most important city in the world to give up that perch and political bullhorn that comes with it would be unheard of.

“There is no mayor except for John Hoffman who went on to higher office, and Boss Tweed wanted to get him out of New York City with plenty of ‘repeater’ voters,” Arzt said. “The road to higher office is to deliver for your constituents. Nothing short of that works.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a comment from a de Blasio administration spokesman disputing the claim that the mayor has not held any town halls.

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