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Silver and Gold Wrap
An anniversary, a reopening, and some writing
This past week was my wife’s and my twenty fifth anniversary. A quarter century is a long time—nearly half my life, and nearly a third of the average male life expectancy in the United States. I’m more than a little proud of having made it to this milestone, and deeply grateful to my wife for sticking with me through her share of choppy waters, plenty of which I had steered us into. I wish I could be sure I won’t do that again, but knowing me I probably will, which makes me even more grateful that she seems willing to have a go at another quarter century anyway.
In keeping with the times, we celebrated in a mostly homey fashion. We had friends over for a celebratory dinner the Friday night prior (for which I made the chocolate layer cake pictured above), sponsored a kiddush at our synagogue on the Saturday prior, went out to a new Manhattan restaurant on the evening of our anniversary proper where we drank too much champagne, and ended the night in a sentimental way, at the funky hotel where we spent our first weekend together twenty-nine years prior. After twenty-five years, I feel confident in saying that while champagne is delightful, sentiment is a superior aphrodisiac.
This past week also marked the official return of Red Bull Theater to live performance with the opening of our production of “The Alchemist”, an adaptation of Ben Johnson’s play by Jeffrey Hatcher. I lobbied hard at the beginning of the pandemic for Red Bull to go aggressively on line, and I’m enormously proud of the work we did (and continue to do) in that medium, but I’ve been longing for many months to see us back on the boards, and am delighted that we finally are. The show is a festival of “all-out clowning” as Elisabeth Vincentelli put it in her review in The New York Times (a full critical rundown can be found here), a kind of cross between “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “Noises Off.” I’m biased of course, because of my association with the company, but I feel confident that if you go you’ll have a good laugh. So go!
New York’s Possible Moderate Democratic Future
My column at The Week this week was about Kathy Hochul, New York’s current governor, who inherited the office when Andrew Cuomo resigned after being charged with sexual harassment. The state’s attorney general, who is responsible for bringing the charges, has now announced that she is challenging Hochul for her office, and since her announcement she has been joined by New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who gave Hochul a tough fight for the Lieutenant Governorship in the last election. Other potential challengers, including outgoing mayor Bill DeBlasio, are also threatening to run. The prospect looms, therefore, of a multi-candidate fight dominated by downstate (indeed, Brooklyn-based) progressives, with Hochul, a former representative from Erie county, the outlier.
For obvious reasons, I think this makes it more likely Hochul gets reelected. I also think it’s a bad dynamic for both progressives and for the Democratic Party in general:
Most obviously, the group of progressive challengers has the potential to split the leftmost voters between them, leaving Hochul a path to winning with a more moderate plurality. Since challengers will necessarily be fighting each other as well as lobbing grenades at the incumbent, it would likewise enable Hochul to rise above the scrimmage while they drag each other down.
But there is an additional reason why left-wing voters should be concerned. We've seen this movie before, and not only does it not end well for the left's preferred candidates, it doesn't end well for their ideological orientation, either.
In last year's New York City mayoral primary, for example, candidates like Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales made a point of running to the left of the spectrum. They were joined by others like veteran Manhattan politico Scott Stringer, who, based on his record, could have presented himself in a more moderate light. The end result wasn't just that one of the more moderate candidates, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, won the nomination, but that he won explicitly as a moderate, opposing defunding the police and supporting easing the path of real estate development.
Something similar happened in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Before the voting began, multiple candidates vied for the approval of left-wing supporters. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) came to dominate that side of the spectrum, but candidates with more moderate records like Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) were also eager to portray themselves as potential standard-bearers from the left. The leftward tilt of the party led former Republican Michael Bloomberg to make a late entry in the race as the voice of moderation, before a revival of Vice President Joe Biden's fortunes — originally the most moderate candidate in the race — swept him to the nomination. But the popular impression of a Democratic Party that was tilting leftward was set, and Biden, the avowed moderate, wound up running meaningfully ahead of his party in the general election.
That's the risk the left runs in encouraging candidates to seek their ideological imprimatur in this manner. It's not just that multiple candidates might split the vote or attack each other; it's that the audition process telegraphs to the larger electorate that the left thinks of themselves as the party's ideological gate-keepers. Even voters who aren't right-wing might wonder who elected them to that office, and even voters who are left-wing might be skeptical of candidates who seem eager to pander, as opposed to lead.
Since I’m kind of a square peg myself, not fitting neatly into progressive, moderate or conservative holes, I might reasonably be accused of concern-trolling here. After all, I don’t really want the progressive left to come to dominate the Democratic Party, both for substantive and strategic reasons. But in many ways the worst of all worlds is a situation where the left comes to dominate the public perception of the Democratic Party while not actually being in charge of it, where the left is perpetually being courted and appeased rather than fought with and compromised with. That gives you much of the downside with very little of the upside (from a left-wing perspective) of tilting left.
In that regard, I think the New York City mayoral primary was salutary, in that it revealed that an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers preferred a mayor who was not affiliated with the activist left. (I say overwhelming because while Eric Adams won a relatively close race in the end, Kathryn Garcia, the second-place finisher at the end of the ranked-choice process, and the third-place finisher among voters’ first choices, was also not affiliated with the activist left, and clearly distanced herself from it in her positions on a host of topics. She just wasn’t as exuberant in her criticisms as Adams or Yang were.) The left-wing scrimmage developing among potential challengers to Hochul, though, suggests that nobody learned anything from that fight, that, in fact, a lot of New York politicians still think there’s a “left primary” that happens before the real primary, and that the general election practically doesn’t exist.
The funny thing, of course, is that Hochul has shifted considerably leftward in an effort to win and retain statewide office. She’s playing the appeasement game too. But if she’s challenged by multiple left-wing alternative candidates, all her incentives are to distinguish herself as the lone moderate, win that way in the primary, and then be in a stronger position to win in the general election. That will not merely deny the left a victory, but weaken their influence with the governor, since they won’t have been an important factor in her victory. The real opportunity, then, is for the serious left-wing advocate who can win the ear of the moderate candidate, now, in the early days. Given Hochul’s western New York roots, and her longstanding opposition from that position to free trade agreements, the best candidate for such a position would probably be someone with a background in labor rights.
The best case, then, from my perspective would be if New York becomes a leader in producing substantive moderates as opposed to split-the-difference types—people who, like Adams, want to spend more on reducing poverty and also smooth the path for real-estate development, or who want to hold the line on crime-fighting while also fighting police brutality, or who want to make union organizing easier while also making it easier to start a small business. I have no idea if Hochul has the chops to be such a person—I’m not sure Adams does either—but that’s the promise they hold out.
Two posts here on the Substack this week:
The first is a meditation on Ross Douthat’s memoir, The Deep Places, a book I heartily recommend. At the end of that piece I make a comparison between Douthat’s “listen to the patient” plea and what I see as a similar plea that was made by transgender individuals a number of years ago. I didn’t draw any explicit conclusions about either Douthat’s agenda or the trajectory of medicine with respect to transgender issues in recent years, because I don’t have explicit conclusions. I did hope the comparison might spark a fruitful debate, though.
The second is a reflection on the Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal. Here, I began with an explicit recollection of the O.J. Simpson trial, another trial whose result a great many people saw as an indictment of our justice system, a reaction that I see as normal and typical but deeply misguided. Trials simply can’t perform the cathartic function that a lot of people—of all shades of politics—want them to perform. Not fair ones anyway. But again, I don’t come to any strong conclusions about either the outcome of that trial or what that outcome portends, because I don’t have strong conclusions.
It occurs to me that refusing to come to strong conclusions because I suspect all strong conclusions are wrong is probably a handicap in this business.