2009-10-23 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Promises, Promises
by Stuart W. Mirsky

The current debate over health care has brought one of our president's more remarkable talents sharply into focus: the ability to dissemble without seeming to. His predecessor couldn't avoid the appearance of lying, of course, or, at least, the relentless charges that he had, but President Barack Obama is rarely if ever confronted with such charges - even though he has a record of saying things, and then not doing them - or doing things differently than he'd said he would.

During the campaign, Barack Obama made it a point on numerous occasions to pledge that negotiations over health care reform would occur in the public domain, even promising to put them on C-Span for everyone to see. Well that never happened and maybe it never could. After all, who can negotiate in the equivalent of the Roman Coliseum? On the other hand, you'd think that candidate Obama would have considered that at the time he made his outlandish commitment. He must have just not been thinking! On the other hand, if George W. Bush had done anything of the sort, imagine the media baying that would have ensued. Not so with Mr. Obama, of course, who seems incapable of doing anything wrong in the eyes of the mainstream media. What a difference an administration makes.

Of course it's not President Obama's first failure to keep his word or shift a position (accompanied by a denial that he had done that). He routinely shifted and denied throughout his highly successful presidential campaign. Since being elected he's continued down this time honored path of promising what will win him plaudits or votes while doing something else. He promised to close the prison compound for captured terrorists at Guan - tanamo within a year, shortly after his inauguration, a rash commitment to be sure, but that's what he promised. Of course, he's had to back pedal given the realities which he somehow failed to notice. He told us he wanted to move past the debate over Bush era interrogation policies - and then allowed his attorney general, Eric Holder, to re - open investigations that had already been closed by career Justice Depart - ment officials (not Bush appoin - tees), once more doing the opposite of what he said he'd do.

ell politicians always do that, don't they? Why expect more from President Obama? Politicians operate on a single imperative, to get themselves elected. Still, the kinds of mistakes, missteps and misstatements Obama routinely gets away with are what sunk the Bush presidency in the face of an unfriendly media. Obama has the advantage of charm and polish, of course, while Bush was awkward and frequently inarticulate. Worse for Bush, he represented a political party long anathema to most media report - ers. But the real deficiency lies not in our politicians, who can't help themselves in their drive to win elections, but in ourselves.

In the upcoming local elections we have an incumbent mayor seeking reelection on the strength of his acknow - edged management skills and a track record of running this town reasonably well in fairly good economic times. But Mayor Bloomberg won his first term by committing to lower taxes and then, well, he raised them. Oops! He promised the increase in real estate tax - es he needed to push through, he said, would only be temporary (and authorized annual rebates to homeowners on a year by year basis afterwards — with his name prominently displayed on the checks, of course). Never mind that the supposedly temporary in - creases haven't gone away eight years later. Who's counting?

As Fred and Harry Siegel note in a recent joint article in the Wall Street Journal (October 15), "Under Mayor Bloomberg, city expenditures grew 40% faster than the rate of inflation even as he imposed record propertytax increases and the city's coffers overflowed with revenues culled from the booming stock and real estate markets." What does "temporary" really mean to a politician, especially where taxes are concerned? In fact, the may - or followed up his "temporary" real es - tate tax increases with raises in water and sewer taxes, in city permit fees across the board, and in parking violations and other nuisance tickets handed out to homeowners and small businesses in the five boroughs.

Mayor Mike, of course, previously ran as a Republican, a so-called fiscal conservative, yet city expenditures on his watch ballooned. Moreover, in his early years in office he adamantly de - fended the term limits that were put in place by city voters in two separate referendums.

At the same time, he discarded his affiliation with the Repub lican Party, on whose ticket he had twice ridden into office, when, it no longer seemed convenient to be associated with the GOP because of the in - creasing unpopularity of the Repub - lican president.

But somewhere along the way the mayor began to see that his political future lay in New York, not on the national stage, and he began to re - think his intentions with regard to local office. The issue for him, though, was what to do about his prior commitment to those pesky term limits! Despite his former support of the people's choice to impose term limits on their officials (expressed twice through citywide votes) and his public commitment not to support reversal of the two referendum outcomes via a legislative maneuver, that's exactly what he ended up doing.

With term limits out of the way, the only thing left was to ensure his place on the ballot and, to accomplish that, he simply repurchased the Republican line he had once publicly discarded. This coming Election Day we have a difficult choice. Mayor Bloomberg hasn't been a bad manager though he has been both a big spender of our tax dollars and a political dissembler who puts our current president to shame. Used to getting his own way, which seems to go along with being a billionaire, the mayor looks to be poised to buy himself a third term in Gracie Mansion thanks to his hefty bankroll and the absence of serious opposition.

Lacking any serious contender or much of an infrastructure of their own, the Republicans have basically sold themselves to this mayor who treats them like damaged goods, while the Democrats have put up City Comp - trol ler William Thompson, a nice enough fellow but no heavyweight in the management department. (He previously served in the relatively powerless position of president of the now defunct Board of Education.) Worse, backed by the city's unions, Thompson is even more likely to continue the mayor's spendthrift ways than the mayor, should he manage to do the nearly unthinkable and get himself elected.

So going into this year's election we can choose between a politician who has routinely lied to us or, at the least, blatantly failed to live up to his own public statements, but who happens to be an accomplished manager - or we can choose a relatively lightweight challenger who promises to out - spend even this mayor in the unlikely event he actually wins.

But this isn't only about selecting the city's top manager. It's also about whether we should continue to reward politicians who shamelessly mislead us with the excuse that they just have to do it in order to win elections. If that's the only way for them to win, isn't it because voters are willing to reward them for playing fast and loose with the truth. If it ever happened that we finally didn't, wouldn't that be a message worth sending? rockirreg@aol.com.

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