The Bravery of Bill de Blasio

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during a press conference held in front of Gracie Mansion on September 20, 2019 in New York City. De Blasio, standing alongside his wife Chirlane McCray, announced his decision to drop out of the 2020 U.S. presidential race. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
Look, over there, an intractable problem in urban politics! Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Watching Bill de Blasio run for president has at times felt like a bad dream. Not in a scary way: For one thing, the city he was supposed to be leading did just fine in his absence. For another, the dork from New York was far from the least deserving candidate. His day-job budget is roughly twice the size of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s and he serves as many constituents as New Jersey’s two senators together. He has piloted a successful pre-kindergarten program, instituted the nation’s first real wage floor for gig economy workers, and presided over a city whose murder rate has fallen to levels no one thought possible.

That another Democratic candidate seized the lane of pragmatic, progressive mayor was a missed opportunity but hardly surprising; de Blasio evidently finds little joy in the job and chose instead to portray himself as a revolutionary from nowhere, a less inspiring version of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Friday morning, finally, it was over. De Blasio announced he was dropping out, telling the anchors of Morning Joe, “It’s clearly not my time.” But the humiliation lingers on, and I find myself looking back on the de Blasio campaign as a bad dream in the sense that it was so relentlessly embarrassing. Only a man half-asleep, drawn to national politics with the same awkward, inexplicable attraction with which a sleepwalker approaches the refrigerator, could have forged through the disdain.

Nevertheless, he persisted: De Blasio’s campaign became a national punchline for Democrats, Republicans, and New Yorkers. He gorged his eyes on the butter cow while cyclists died on the streets of Brooklyn; he was sidelined in Iowa as a blackout saw the lights go out on Broadway. Like anyone stuck in a dead-end career, he wished on the Monkey’s Paw for a “game-changing moment” and found himself going viral for a video glitch that made him sound like he was mayor of Chipmunkville. Not once did de Blasio let his self-doubt show (unlike some people), never did he let us think he wasn’t committed, inspired, and enjoying himself. His only regret, he says now, was not entering the race earlier.

It was an out-of-character performance for a guy who is famous in New York for his thin skin. It took, dare I say, a kind of courage to be the man who proved as reliable as Mariano Rivera at putting zeroes on the scoreboard.

Many New Yorkers have begun to think of de Blasio as a kind of “lame duck” mayor, and in a sense that is true because he has no path to another term or higher office. In all of May, the mayor spent seven hours at City Hall. In the vacuum created by his absence, you could feel various challengers jockeying for moral authority.

But de Blasio is not on his way out. He has 28 months remaining in office. And that, combined with what seems to be a newfound, ironclad resistance to public opinion, opens up a window for a mayor who has often been defined, alternately, by browbeating at the hands of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the NYPD.

In short, he’s free. And if de Blasio doesn’t care about doing what’s popular anymore, he’s in a great position to deal with issues where doing the right thing might not be immediately popular. Those include following through on his promise to integrate New York City’s public schools, pushing his Riker’s closure plan across the finish line, reforming the city’s public housing authority, and reining in the scourge of private car traffic.

None of those is a particularly easy issue to take on, but none will be less popular than running for president. His summer internship is over; maybe he learned something.