Michael Bloomberg used to operate by astute and careful testing of public opinion before launching a policy. Not any longer
There was a time when Mayor Michael Bloomberg cared what the voters thought. Displaying the technocratic skills that made him a business tycoon, Bloomberg mixed policy initiatives with a keen sense of what the public was willing to support in order to create policy.
Jump into a time machine with me back to the year 2002. Bloomberg had just won a first term as mayor by the slimmest of margins. He knew that as the then-Republican mayor of a Democratic city, he needed public backing for any policy that might be thought of as controversial.
Bloomberg wanted to propose almost unheard of ban on smoking in as many public gathering places as possible. Keep in mind that Bloomberg’s proposal was five years before Disney banned smoking in its films.
He decided to commission a poll to understand if the public was willing to back him. It turned out that a majority of New Yorkers were not only willing to support smoking bans in offices, but in restaurants and bars, too. Bloomberg utilized this data to make a technocratic presentation on why New York should ban smoking in these places. The City Council then passed a smoking ban in all these places by a 42-7 margin.
The tabloids may have decried Bloomberg’s move, but he was giving the people what they wanted and using representative democratic means to give it to them.
Three years later, Bloomberg had the idea for restaurants to ban trans fats. Taking a page out of the Jacob Javits playbook, he tried to get private enterprise to take the lead. He wanted a non-government solution, so his board of health went around to restaurants to convince them to voluntarily avoid trans fats. The restaurants were difficult to convince.
Bloomberg, however, read the poll numbers. People clearly wanted trans fats out of their lives. Bloomberg passed a government-backed trans fat ban; only after private enterprise failed to implement a voluntary one.
Same thing from 2009-2011, when it came to banning smoking in parks and even Times Square. Bloomberg had the polling support and passed the initiative via the city council 36-12. If Bloomberg were a “nanny”, then New Yorkers were little kids looking for someone to walk them to the bus stop.
Now, Mayor Mike wants to ban sodas and sugary drinks over 16 ounces from restaurants, bodegas, etc. You might have expected Bloomberg’s initial public presentation to have figures and tables mapping public opinion. You would have been wrong.
The pie charts and decimal points about how New Yorkers felt were nowhere to be seen. In their stead were the usual politician’s visual showboating with sugar packets and soda bottles. The certainty of Bloomberg’s conviction that he was supporting what the public wanted was also gone. Instead, he offered:
“I think [the ban is] what the public wants the mayor to do.”
Think? I’m pretty sure if researchers at Bloomberg LP were to say they “think” somethink to be the case without the data to back it up, they’d have their electronic passes revoked pretty quick.
Was it just that the mayor didn’t care? Possibly. It also seems possible that he’d seen the data – and knew it didn’t look good.
New York City residents are against the large soda ban by a 53% to 42% margin. In a rare rainbow coalition, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, whites, blacks, Latinos, young, old, rich, poor, college graduates, non-college graduates, men, women, soda drinkers, non-soda drinkers, people who want to lose weight, and people who don’t, all believe the ban to be a bad idea. Bloomberg has even gotten Jon Stewart to agree with Tucker Carlson.
Most politicians would panic at these poll numbers. They would recognize that law makers of all persuasions would be hesitant to pass any bill with this wide of an opposition. The good news for Bloomberg is that he doesn’t have to answer to anyone.
He claims that he has the right to pass this soda restriction via the board of health. The same board of health which the Mayor appointed and will automatically pass it. In other words, the people of New York could hate this initiative the way a true baseball fan hates the Yankees and it wouldn’t mean diddly. Toward the end of his third and final term, Mayor Mike cannot be held accountable.
I know cynics might point to Bloomberg’s willingness to ignore two voter-approved referendums on term limits as proof that New Yorkers should have seen this tendency for him to do whatever he wants with no consequences. At least, in that case, though, the voters had to vote him in for a third term. There is no recourse in this situation.
Mayor Mike isn’t who he was when he first came into office, or even who he was a few years ago. Gone are the days when Bloomberg engineered policy to match public desire and utilized polling to do so. These are the days when Mayor Michael Bloomberg engineers policy to meet his own convictions and ignores any indications about whether New Yorkers want what he does.