One of the most quoted adages in politics — the one about there being no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, just permanent interests — gained new life Wednesday. The two most influential New Yorkers in public life squared off over how to best resuscitate their shared drive for more gun control.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked almost 2,000 of the biggest political givers in the city to withhold all donations to the four Democratic senators who voted this spring against expanding the federal background check system.
And Charles E. Schumer — who has proudly made his home at the Senate’s three-way intersection of money, politics and policy — made it absolutely clear he viewed the mayor’s move as cockamamie, ridiculous, meshuga and just plain dumb.
The day brought into the open the tensions between the two that have been germinating for weeks. It also cast in sharp relief the very different ways they often go about achieving similar ends.
Bloomberg has based his varied careers — investment banker, media tycoon and three-term mayor — on the proposition that amassing a significant personal fortune affords him the right to be unilateral, unyielding and unbeholden in pursuing his Big Gulp goals.
Schumer has based his one career — he’s been in elected office all 38 years since graduating from law school — on the premise that raking in significant sums from others should allow him to lead his party’s machine on the long march toward glass-more-than-half-full victory.
Given that purity is a hallmark of the Bloomberg way, and realpolitik a hallmark of the Schumer approach, it was little surprise the pair would split on the best tactics for reclaiming momentum in the gun debate.
The mayor sent his letter to his city’s Democratic donor elite, many of whom he knows both personally and professionally from New York’s close-knit world of money as power: those who gave $5,000 or more to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the past three campaigns and those who gave at least $1,000 last cycle to the quartet that Bloomberg wants to starve for money until they reverse course and support background checks for almost every would-be gun buyer.
Those four Democratic renegades are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska, Max Baucus of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
“Until they show that they will stand up for the American people and not the gun lobby, tell them you cannot support their candidacy," Bloomberg said.
There are a couple of profound downsides to that approach, in the eyes of Schumer and others in the Senate leadership, Nevada's Harry Reid included. And those problems could go a long way to costing the Democrats a pair of Senate seats in 2014, when a loss of five would mean the return of a GOP majority and no chance whatsoever for gun control legislation.
While Baucus is retiring and Heitkamp isn't on the ballot until 2018, Pryor and Begich are both up next year. And both will be running in states that are otherwise solid red, have very strong gun cultures and are raising up Republican challengers who all enjoy top ratings from the National Rifle Association.
The absence of several hundred thousand dollars in New York money could really hurt in a close race. And so could all the increased attention to their races that Bloomberg’s crusade of scolding and shaming could bring — even though both Pryor and Begich are asserting they’ll have little trouble turning the mayor’s criticism into a badge of honor.
“No one from New York or Washington tells me what to do; I listen to Arkansas,” Pryor says to the camera in his first campaign ad, which went up after Bloomberg’s advocacy arm, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, spent $350,000 airing a TV spot across the state criticizing Pryor for his April votes.
Behind their brave game faces, though, is palpable anxiety that Bloomberg’s move will do the Democrats more harm than good — and considerable worry that upbraiding the mayor, a political independent who’s leaving office at year’s end, will only intensify his resolve to pursue his gun control objectives the best way he knows how.
“Mayor Bloomberg is entitled to make choices he wants to make, he obviously feels very strongly about this issue and he has for a long time and I’m not going to make a judgment about that,” was the anodyne comment Wednesday from Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, the chairman of the DSCC.
Schumer was only slightly less oblique in his comment to The New York Times, which first reported Bloomberg’s new move: “We should be mindful that pro-gun safety laws have a much better chance of passing under a Democratic Senate majority than a Republican one.”
Given their different styles — not to mention that neither makes much effort to mask his ego or his desires to be seen as New York’s premier power player — it’s no surprise their relationship has been complex. Generally, the reports have been that they’ve worked well together, mainly because they agree more often than not.
They did famously feud during deliberations on legislation setting new regulations on financial services businesses. Bloomberg argued for a go-easy approach that wouldn’t slow the flow of money and jobs to the banks and hedge funds anchoring his city’s economy. Schumer argued that it was in the Democratic Party’s interest to do more for the base voters on Main Street than the big donors on Wall Street.
They also split on who should be Schumer’s Senate colleague for the long haul. In 2010, Schumer backed his initially appointed colleague, Kirsten Gillibrand, while the mayor encouraged a run by Harold Ford Jr., who moved to Manhattan after losing his Senate race in Tennessee.
Their most recent disagreement came last summer, when Bloomberg equated the president’s at-the-time-standoffish attitude toward gun control with Mitt Romney’s more overt opposition.
“I thought that was unfair,” the senator said.