In his biography of Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Norton Smith quotes him as saying “there is no problem that can’t be solved.” He never said “we can’t afford it.” And there is no record of him bragging on a campaign platform about how rich he was (he really didn’t want anyone to know).
Bloomberg’s approach comes from a less visionary tradition, which also has precedents in New York. Before there was President Trump, New York’s Democratic governor Hugh Carey, whose family was in the oil business, announced at his inauguration in 1975 that “the days of wine and roses are over” — an astonishing insult in a state that had elected Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the two creators of the New Deal, to the governorship.
Carey wasn’t kidding: Within a year, he and the Democratic mayor of New York, Abe Beame — whose parents were Socialists — ended free tuition at the City University of New York, which had been in effect since 1847.
Bill Clinton went a step further in 1993, proclaiming an end to the “era of big government.” It was the kind of language you expected to hear on Fox News, not from a Democratic president. The result is a country whose philosophy has changed from unbridled optimism to defeated penny-pinching — unless, of course, the vast public outlays are directed to big businesses and billion-dollar sports stadiums owned by billionaires.
When people like Michael Bloomberg say the Green New Deal is unrealistic, remember the half-trillion-dollar TARP program to bail out the financial sector. Just about anything can magically become realistic if it benefits the right people: the General Motors bailout, vast subsidies for giant agricultural corporations, or the zero dollars in real estate taxes paid by the Dolan family, owners of Madison Square Garden, and the $360 million tax break for Donald Trump’s Grand Hyatt in New York.
Thankfully, an optimistic spirit is again rearing its head. You’re seeing it in the progressive grassroots, the high school activists — and in the Democratic presidential race, where big ideas for the future are once again in vogue.
Today it’s the people who reflexively say “this can’t be done” who we should be worried about. They’re the ones who’ve lost touch with the best traditions of our politics. You can hear their chorus of concerns every time these big ideas are floated: Medicare for All? Impossible. Free public college? Too expensive. Tax those who can afford it at a higher rate? Never. These people have given up — they should be benched, or sent back to the minor leagues.