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A Breeze from the Left

Bill Clinton swears in Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City.
Bill Clinton swears in Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

If you want to know which way the political winds are blowing, watch Bill Clinton.

And those who watch Bill Clinton know where the former president was on New Year’s Day: Swearing in Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City.

Sure, de Blasio worked in President Clinton’s administration and ran Hillary Clinton’s senatorial campaign in 2000. No doubt there’s a bond between the Clintons and de Blasio.

But de Blasio is also among the most liberal of the nation’s elected officials, and Bill Clinton senses a resurgent liberalism. By swearing in the progressive new mayor of the nation’s largest city, Clinton nudged Hillary ever so slightly to the left, a good place to be if she runs for president in 2016.

Bill Clinton remembers how Barack Obama got to Hillary’s left in 2008, particularly on the Iraq War, which she voted to authorize while in the Senate. The former president, who ran for the office in 1992 as a centrist, is repositioning the family to forestall a challenge to his wife from the left. Elizabeth Warren, please take note.

De Blasio is an unabashed progressive, and his inaugural speech Wednesday reflected his leftist politics. “We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love,” he said. “And so today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York. And that same progressive impulse has written our city’s history. It’s in our DNA.”

He vowed to fulfill his campaign promise to attack income inequality — which became more pronounced in New York under his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. “So let me be clear,” de Blasio asserted. “When I said we would take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities, I meant it. And we will do it.” Dickensian themes were ever-present at de Blasio’s inauguration.

The rich have done very well in New York City under the last two mayors, Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, both nominal Republicans. The plight of the rest of the city reflects, even magnifies, the disturbing national trend of the rich gobbling up more and more of the economic pie while the middle class and the poor struggle to get by.

Mayors can only do so much to level the playing field, but de Blasio promised to stop closing hospitals, to expand paid sick leave, and to reform the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy. He also pledged to “ask the very wealthy to pay a little more in taxes so that we can offer full-day universal pre-K and after-school programs for every middle school student.” Those making between $500,000 and one million dollars a year would get a tax increase averaging $973 a year. “That’s less than three bucks a day – about the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks,” he said.

As the nation’s largest city, financial center, and theatrical hub, New York always attracts attention. Liberals — and their political opponents — will be watching more closely than ever as the de Blasio administration turns the city, in the words of The New York Times, into a “laboratory for populist theories of government.”

De Blasio’s unabashed attack on inequality symbolizes a major new trend in American politics, the resurgence of the left. The reemergence of a strong progressive strain in the American polity is a healthy corrective to the rightward drift of the last several decades. As E.J. Dionne notes, “For a long time, the American conversation has been terrible distorted because an active uncompromising political right has not had to face comparably influential left.” Ultra-conservatives have dominated the debate, pulling the center to the right as well.

The rise of de Blasio, along with progressives like Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders, challenges conservative dominance and forces moderates to the left.

Which is why Bill Clinton swore in Bill de Blasio on a Bible once used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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