In New York, real populism and real choices

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Red Room at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 27, 2014, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Once again this year, as in the past two election cycles, Democrats in Washington don’t have to worry much about the kind of fratricidal disorder that plagues the modern Republican Party. But neither should they take too lightly the intraparty breach that seems to be widening in New York, where the mayor of the nation’s biggest city is staring down the governor of its third largest state.

On the surface, the argument between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo over how to finance a massive expansion of prekindergarten education seems like your classic high-class problem, sort of like arguing with your spouse over whether you should build an addition or buy a Tesla instead. But there’s more going on here than just a couple of egos angling for credit. The debate gets at a divide over the direction of liberalism in America, a divide that could soon force the party’s leaders to choose sides.

De Blasio, as you may recall, stormed into City Hall with 73 percent of the vote in last November’s election (without, it should be said, any real competition in one of the nation’s most disproportionately Democratic cities). Held up nationally as a model of economic populism, he immediately set about achieving his first goal: enacting a surcharge on New Yorkers making more than $500,000 and using the money to more than double the number of pre-K slots in the city.

To pass a new tax, however, de Blasio needed the approval of the Legislature and the governor, his onetime boss and political ally. Cuomo, who has spent most of his term trying to hold down historically high taxes in the state, wasn’t exactly jazzed about this idea. So he came up with a counterproposal: He found money in the state budget to pay for the city’s pre-K expansion, thus obviating the need for any new tax. Problem solved!

Except that de Blasio politely but firmly declined the offer. Instead, he has been vacuuming up huge sums of cash from liberal contributors and labor unions in order to mount another major campaign for his new tax, whether Cuomo likes it or not.

It’s easy to see this debate as a clash between two pols playing to different constituencies. But that's probably unfair to de Blasio and Cuomo, both of whom seem to be acting out of genuine conviction. What their standoff illustrates is the critical difference between true economic populism, on one hand, and mere progressivism on the other. Politicians and journalists throw these terms around as if they were synonymous and interchangeable, but they aren’t.

Populism, by its historical definition, is punitive; it presumes that the main barrier to broad prosperity are the wealthy citizens who refuse to share. The only fair and effective way to mitigate the effects of inequality, the thinking here goes, is to take large sums of capital away from those who hoard it and redistribute it to those less fortunate.

Despite what you may read, raising the minimum wage isn’t really a populist idea. It’s straight-up mainstream liberalism, of the kind that dominated Washington for most of the 20th  century. Capping pay for CEOs would be a more classically populist approach.

Lots of Democrats call themselves populists these days, but few deserve the label. John Edwards brought the term “populist” back into vogue when he ran for president in 2008, but in fact, almost nothing he proposed would have so much as inconvenienced the richest Americans. Edwards railed convincingly like a populist, but his agenda was more Bill Clinton than William Jennings Bryan.

De Blasio is something rare, to this point anyway, in modern politics: a genuine populist. He’s made pretty clear that his top legislative priority is the tax, rather than the availability of pre-K itself. Cuomo’s proposal, while it might not offer as much money up front as de Blasio wants, would clear away political hurdles and allow de Blasio to get the program up and running immediately. The real missing piece in Cuomo’s plan is the tax, which de Blasio sees as indispensable, even though its effect on concentrated wealth would be mostly symbolic. (A New Yorker earning $1 million a year would owe slightly more than $2,500.) As a mayor, that’s about the best he can do when it comes to confiscating capital.

De Blasio seems genuinely passionate about pre-K, and yet you have to wonder if, forced to choose, he might rather get the proposed tax and use the money for something else entirely —  like, say, homeless shelters or bus service —  than get his pre-K program without the surcharge. That’s because his proposal is as much about sticking it to the Monopoly monocle guy as it is about expanding education. This is real, intellectually honest populism.

Cuomo, on the other hand, is what you might call a modern progressive, in the mold of the Clintons or fellow governors like Jerry Brown. He believes that an activist government can address all manner of social problems, but he doesn’t buy the proposition that confiscating more wealth is the central way to right wrongs. To a modern progressive, getting more kids into early education gets at the root causes of inequality — a problem you do nothing to solve just by taking a few extra bucks from Wall Street millionaires.

For decades, going back to Walter Mondale’s shellacking in 1984, Democrats tried to get away from any notion of economic populism, even as the wealthiest Americans concentrated more and more of the wealth. Then in the past few years, shaken by the economic crisis and responding to pressure within their own party, Democratic candidates started mouthing the rhetoric of populism, but they’ve done little, practically speaking, to punish the wealthy.

In this sense, Barack Obama has been very much his party’s standard-bearer. Like a guy who attends the occasional tent revival, Obama has gone through periodic fits of populist fervor, railing about “fat cat” bankers and the like. But it’s never seemed terribly believable, nor has it been backed up by any policy more draconian than restoring some Clinton-era tax rates on the rich.

De Blasio is the real thing, though, and he’s calling out his party. It’s fine to fancy yourself an economic populist, but this is what it looks like in practice: prioritizing class-based retribution over any single policy outcome because you believe the means by which you attack wealth disparity are at least as important as the end. Its central argument is that the wealthy themselves — more than technology or globalism or failing schools — are ruining the society for everyone else.

No matter who comes out on top in New York, you can bet this premise will be tested at the highest levels of the party, in 2016 or perhaps even sooner. No matter how much Democrats may try to paper over the distinctions, not all progressives are populist, and not everyone who calls himself a populist is willing to lay blame so squarely on the wealthy. And not knowing where you stand on all this, as a party, is anything but a high-class problem.

Follow Matt Bai on Twitter.

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