Surveying the weird and historic presidential election of 2008, journalists Mark Halperin and John Harris wrote extensively about "freak show politics'' – how seemingly small or minor issues sometimes rise to dominate the news cycle: the cost of John Edwards' haircuts or Hillary Clinton's tipping practices, for example. While all of these stories might be entertaining or interesting, they probably have little to do with the ability of a politician to navigate the complicated issues confronting the country.
Fast forward to this year's race for mayor – when suddenly the Reagan-era ideological battle over the Contras and Nicaragua have bizarrely taken center stage. It started on Monday when The New York Times looked at Bill de Blasio's activist roots – focusing on his work with the Quixote Center, a Maryland group that provided relief work in Nicaragua and was considered to be sympathetic to the Marxist-leaning Sandinista government. The article also notes that in 1990 de Blasio said he was an advocate of "democratic socialism."
Seizing on this information like a pitbull, GOP mayoral candidate Joe Lhota has been channeling the spirit of his old boss, Rudy Giuliani, expressing concern about these tidbits from de Blasio's past, saying of his Democratic rival : "He has a fascination with the socialist, Marxist world, and we need to make sure that all New Yorkers are aware of that." After literally running away from reporters on Monday, de Blasio fired back at Lhota on Tuesday, saying he was employing "a classic right-wing tactic of division."
A candidate's past is certainly fair game on the campaign trail but de Blasio would rather call Lhota a GOP boogey monster than directly address his political history. But from what I can glean from The Times piece, de Blasio was hardly a bomb-throwing anarchist but rather a politician with deep roots in left-wing activism. In the 1980's, Democratic Socialism was the buzzword of liberal Democrats who were the followers of activist intellectuals Michael Harrington and Barbara Ehrenreich. They were people who rejected Ronald Reagan Republicanism and felt that the Democratic party needed to return to its populist roots in order to win back the White House. They rejected Jimmy Carter in 1980 and voted for John Anderson or Barry Commoner for president. In many ways, the hope of David Dinkins and his mayoral bid in 1989 brought together not just African-American activists but white liberals like de Blasio who thought the city could be a progressive place of change.
That's a mouthful for de Blasio to have to explain in a quick soundbite but that hardly makes him a Marxist who's going to appropriate everyone's homes for the new collective and its ten-year plan. Talking about the Sandinistas might be a fun detour on the campaign trail for a couple of days but ultimately it's a dead-end if it's Joe Lhota's roadmap to Gracie Mansion. Freak shows can only take you so far.