Yesterday's New York Times featured a 2500-word argument for a Republican party that is more politically-competitive in American cities. The author, Kevin Baker, claims that this would be a win-win for the GOP and the cities. Cities would stop being taken for granted by Democrats and their "corrupt and mediocre candidates," and Republicans would win more votes.
One way to make this argument would be to analyze cities' current problems and point out how Republican policies could help. That's generally not Baker's approach, aside from a few nods to Jack Kemp, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Baker mostly recommends that Republicans be more like Democrats. Republicans should become more socially liberal, embrace stricter gun laws, more lenient immigration laws, and disavow the call to "delegitimize and destroy what [Republicans] mockingly call 'public employees' unions.'" (Would Baker have preferred "the fourth branch of government"?) A "serious, practical discussion of educational reform" cannot occur until Republicans agree that teachers unions are not the problem.
But credit to Baker for pointing out the benefits of partisanship. One hears little of that these days, and to bring an end to one-party rule in cities would improve civic life and democratic government. And yet, what does it mean to promote a partisanship that is not grounded in fundamental policy differences? If the difference narrows between the two parties on most policy questions, what will they argue and compete over?
Baker's vision bears a curious similarity to the age of the urban machines, which he rightly notes was the last time Republicans were viable in cities. Back then, politics, or at least party politics in cities, had little to do with policy and everything to do with "who gets what, when and how." People always mention the corruption of the machines. More essential was their pettiness and disinterest in policy. The pettiness motivated the corruption.
In the 1890s, American politics was dominated by the tense and highly ideological debate over free silver. When Richard Croker, the boss of Tammany Hall, was asked to comment on the hard vs. soft money question, he replied "I'm in favor of all kinds of money-the more the better."
But this discussion is fast becoming purely academic. Not anytime soon will the GOP become broadly competitive in urban America. The numbers are too staggering (Chart).
Out of the 50 biggest cities in America, only 13 have Republican mayors. In this sample, on a population basis, independent mayors govern a greater share of urban American than do Republicans (although that figure is skewed because of New York City and Michael Bloomberg).