How Conservatives Can Learn From NYC’s 1990s Revival

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By Thomas Koenig for RealClearPolitics

A new documentary can help remind conservatives of the importance of responding to real-world problems with practical policies. “Gotham: The Fall and Rise of New York” tells the story of how an unapologetic commitment to common sense and truth helped liberate New York City from urban despair. Through clips and in-depth interviews with the era’s key players such as Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Police Commissioners Bill Bratton and Ray Kelly, and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Robert Doar, the film recounts how conservatives made inroads and notched policy wins in the biggest city in America.

The ungovernable city proved governable after all. Conservatism proved itself a viable political philosophy in modern urban America. And most importantly, real people benefited as they enjoyed safer streets, better-performing schools, and higher-paying jobs.

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The film begins with an introduction to mid-20th century liberalism in the form of John Lindsay’s mayoralty. Mayor Lindsay cut a dashing figure like John F. Kennedy and spent money like Lyndon Johnson. His tax-and-spend policies placed New York City in a precarious financial situation. Crime rose, welfare rolls exploded, and the city lost 600,000 jobs.

New Yorkers enjoyed a brief respite from these woes during Ed Koch’s mayoralty, but the election of David Dinkins in 1989 led to backsliding. Still, there were discrete policy victories in the early 1990s, such as the revival of Bryant Park. The park had become a public space in name only: It was littered with graffiti and gangs, and New Yorkers were not safe even in broad daylight. In response, the park was privatized, and under the leadership of Dan Biederman, the graffiti was cleaned up, the broken lights were repaired, and the hedges were trimmed.

In an interview, Biederman noted how a “relentless” and “data-driven” approach helped drive the successful revitalization. Biederman “implemented every good idea [he] learned from other cities’ models” and from interviews he conducted of those who had revitalized public spaces elsewhere. A similar isolated victory occurred during the Dinkins years when then-transit police chief Bill Bratton all but eliminated crime in New York’s once-dangerous subway system.

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The Rudy Giuliani era wrought more widespread transformation. In the lead-up to Giuliani’s mayoralty, the Manhattan Institute regularly convened meetings of reformers to discuss policy fixes for the city’s many challenges. In “Gotham,” political commentator Joe Klein recounts how “truth, not ideology, dwelled” at those early gatherings. Comprising largely ex-Great Society liberals, the think tank also began publishing City Journal, where facts, figures, and common sense dominated the pages.

Soon enough, the City Journal-reading Giuliani was transforming reform proposals into reality. Police Chief Bratton homed in on quality-of-life issues and turned the NYPD into a proactive, rather than reactive, force. For Bratton, the goal was to prevent crime, not merely respond to it. He succeeded by leveraging data. Bratton instituted the “CompStat” system, which documented every instance of reported crime and its precise location. By documenting and reviewing the data routinely, the police tracked trends and identified hotspots.

In an interview, Chief of Department Lou Anemone recounted how “CompStat was like a shot of adrenaline to the heart of the NYPD.” CompStat’s focus on data and the need for rapid response gelled with the culture of experimentation and innovation that reigned at the NYPD in those years: “There was no shame in failing,” recounts Anemone, but “there was shame in not attempting to fix” what many had presumed were unsolvable problems.

According to Anemone, “a sense of urgency” pervaded the police squad, largely thanks to Giuliani and Bratton’s leadership. The mix of urgency and experimentation paid off: Major felonies declined by roughly 62% during Giuliani’s tenure.

Giuliani also transformed the city’s welfare system. Alongside Human Resources Administration Commissioner Jason Turner, Giuliani used incentives to push New Yorkers from welfare to work. Giuliani and Turner rewarded welfare agents with bonuses for placing citizens in sustainable employment. They reduced welfare fraud and instituted work requirements (“workfare”). The welfare rolls dwindled; the city’s economy boomed.

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Giuliani notched similar policy successes with the help of incentives elsewhere: Instead of paying sanitation workers hourly, he paid them based on how much trash they collected each day. Many workers skipped lunch in order to cover more ground. The streets grew cleaner.

In large part, Mayor Michael Bloomberg built on Giuliani’s successes. With the help of New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein, Bloomberg brought Giuliani’s incentives-based thinking to bear on the city’s education system. He increased the number of charter schools while simultaneously subjecting the public schools to more stringent performance measures.

Yet Bloomberg didn’t have a coherent governing philosophy that a successor could follow. Thus, as former Manhattan Institute president Larry Mone observes in “Gotham,” Bloomberg’s mayoralty represented a set of policies that worked but were “not preserved.” The political forces of yesteryear quickly filled the resultant “vacuum.” John Lindsay was gone, but with the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor in 2013, the Lindsay governing philosophy was back. The city has suffered as a result, leaving it once again in need of revival. Anemone’s observation that “you can never underestimate the importance of leadership” is as relevant as ever.

New York isn’t alone. Many cities are falling short on basics like crime control and education. Crime has been spiking. As Biederman puts it, we’ve backslidden to “reactive policing,” where “police are historians” instead of taking action on crime. We’ve reached a point where local NAACP chapters critique the “proliferation of anti-police rhetoric.” In states like Pennsylvania, students sit trapped in failing public schools as politicians cave to teachers’ unions.

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In the face of such shortcomings, the rational urban conservatism that saved New York City in the 1990s-2000s is absent. The Philadelphia GOP chair has likened his role as the head of the city’s once-robust Republican Party to being “the valedictorian of summer school.” And the national GOP has drifted away from offering real-world solutions to real-world problems. Giuliani himself embodies this unfortunate shift: Once “America’s Mayor” and the champion of New York’s revival, he is now facing lawsuits and threats of disbarment thanks to his role in propagating the 2020 election fraud conspiracies.

“Gotham” makes clear that it doesn’t have to be this way. As Joe Klein observes, “Politics is always an ebb and flow.” We’re in the midst of an acrimonious, unserious political age that is short on policy and long on rhetoric. If liberalism had “become stale” by 1990, in Klein’s words, then today’s progressivism might wear out its welcome, too. To fill the resultant void in our cities, conservatism needs to get its act together by breaking up with culture wars and conspiracy theories and getting back in touch with common sense.

Thomas Koenig is a student at Harvard Law School from Oreland, Pa. Follow him on Twitter @thomaskoenig98.

Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.

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