Live From New York, It's the Narcissism Primary
New York may not be the nation’s capital, but it’s the center of the world. And if you don’t believe that, just listen to the ultimate New Yorker at peak bravado, full of the assertiveness, self-affirmation and parochial egotism familiar to any longtime resident.
“We have the greatest values—nobody has values like us,” Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, told his fellow New Yorkers this week. “And I’m proud of New York and I’m proud of the people of New York. And you know what? The whole country and the whole world is proud of New York. I’m telling you that—I know it. I’m all over the world.”
The naked pandering to the home crowd and string of impossible-to-disprove superlatives isn’t new for Trump, whom even his own party loves to hate. But the spotlight on the ostentatious performance from this creature of the city’s competitive and savage tabloid culture has only widened as Trump stumps through his home state, trying to collect all of the delegates in the April 19 primary.
And as the nation focuses its attention—even more than usual—on New York and its presidential primary, it’s highlighting the foibles and peculiarities of not just the candidates themselves, but on the challenges of campaigning in the Empire State, where authenticity is prized above all.
“Resiliency is a big issue for New York—you’ve got to be able to take a punch, and stand up and defend yourself,” said George Arzt, a Democratic strategist who was press secretary for former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. “Politics is blood sport in New York. We’re all spectators and we all love it.”
On the Republican side of the presidential race, Trump is using his home-field advantage to take out his aggression on Ted Cruz after a bruising loss to the Texas senator last week in Wisconsin. The favorite son is hoping to deliver his most convincing win of the primary season by hammering away at Cruz with—for the freewheeling Trump—a rare, singular focus on the lawmaker’s early attempt to disparage the former reality-TV host and his “New York values.”
But it’s the vigorous Democratic race here between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders, two candidates with starkly contrasting personalities, political profiles and background, that is boiling down to their own highly calculated displays of authenticity.
This two-step—gaffe swiftly followed by tabloid shaming—is an unwritten but ubiquitous step in New York’s political process. There was the time Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern was mocked for ordering a chopped liver sandwich and glass of milk at a kosher deli in New York’s garment district. Jesse Jackson was forced to apologize in his 1984 presidential campaign for referring to the city as “Hymietown.” Gerald Ford lost the state in 1976 in after the New York Daily News summed up his refusal to bail out the city from bankruptcy with a devastating headline: “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” Trump and a Republican rival, Ohio Governor John Kasich, have both been mocked for eating pizza with a fork, not the best use of utensils in the city.
This year’s poster boy is Cruz, whose attempt to use “New York values” as a pejorative seems to have put a strict ceiling on his support in the state.
“New Yorkers are pretty sensitive,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political strategist in the state. “They can snub each other, but if an outsider snubs a New Yorker, he snubs them all.”
If the political culture in New Hampshire revolves around countless town halls and house parties, in New York it's defined by how candidates bend over backward to display their understanding and admiration for the local folkways and values. That includes stopping for a slice of pizza or cheesecake, touching the various minority groups—and their elected leaders—and, perhaps most importantly, threading the political needle to land a photo on the front of one of the tabloids without getting mocked.
The tabs ensure that going too far is just enough. One of the frequent targets of the New York Post is Bill Lipton’s Working Families Party, which the newspaper regularly taunts and equates with communists. “It’s just par for the course,” Lipton, state director of the party, says of the political tabloid culture. “This is the mother’s milk of New York politics.”
The local media's role is most clear this year in the Democratic contest between two complicated political types—the former carpetbagger, and the long-departed favorite son. Clinton, an Illinois native, served eight years as a U.S. senator for New York. Sanders is a native-born Brooklynite, whose gravely accent is like a ghost of New York’s past stirring the passions of the young voters representing the city’s future.
“It’s her adopted state and he was born and raised in Brooklyn—and more New Yorkers talk like him than her,” said Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Sanders. “He has just as much of a claim to the state as she does.”
Despite his ability to draw tens of thousands around the five boroughs, the Vermont senator—he moved away from New York after high school—is currently a double-digit underdog to Clinton. She parachuted in after her stint as first lady, but performed ably as a senator and has made inroads with the political elite around the state, from Wall Street donors at Goldman Sachs to popular Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Asked recently if they considered Clinton to be a New Yorker, Democratic primary voters in the state were split: about one in three said she definitely was, another one third said only somewhat and the rest said not really, according to a Monmouth University poll released Monday. When the same question was put to voters about Sanders, the results were almost identical.
“I’m sure the Clinton camp was hoping for a much bigger lead in her adopted home state, but any such advantage appears to be limited against Sanders,” said Patrick Murray, director of the university’s polling institute.
Carpetbagging is something of a state tradition, Robert F. Kennedy’s defeat of incumbent Senator Kenneth Keating in 1964 is the most famous. Kennedy capitalized on the tragic glamor and promise of his brother’s White House. Clinton won over the locals in her characteristic, grinding manner, by paying close attention to every excruciating detail in the state she could, from joining the Senate Eggplant Caucus (New York is among the nation’s leaders in eggplant production) to securing $20 billion in recovery funds after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
To win New York this time, she started campaigning in the state even before the last contest in Wisconsin has played out. She’s held events upstate and in Western New York to remind residents of her tenure as senator. She’s running a pair of ads in upstate media markets that trumpet her work to establish a medical campus in Buffalo that now includes 100 companies, and aid she secured for farmers in the Finger Lakes region.
“You know, I love being in Brooklyn,” Clinton said during a debate on Thursday, one of more than two dozen times she mentioned the state, its biggest city, or one of the five boroughs.
Campaigning in the city, she has assiduously checked boxes. She held an event in Brooklyn with Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Toby Love, struggled to swipe her subway card during a planned photo-op, made the obligatory cheesecake stop at Junior’s in Brooklyn (although she wouldn't eat in front of the cameras), spoke at Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, and made an appearance at the Inner Circle, an annual dinner for the city’s press corps and political elite.
She provided some tabloid fodder at the dinner by participating in a skit with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in which they joked about “C.P. time,” a reference to “colored people time.” Clinton jumped in with the punch line that it meant “cautious politician time.”
But the New York tabloids have been tougher on Sanders, who stumbled through an editorial-board meeting with the Daily News this month when he struggled to provide details about how to break up the nation’s biggest banks, and failed to specify how Wall Street officials should have been prosecuted over the financial collapse. The newspaper endorsed Clinton this week, and splashed the announcement on the front page.
But that front page wasn’t nearly as juicy as the treatment Cruz received last week.
Cruz has been doing everything he can to walk back his “values” jibe. He’s visited a matzo bakery in Brooklyn, rolling out unleavened bread and singing along to a Passover song. He tried to explain away his comment by saying he was talking about liberal Democratic policies. A scheduled visit to Bronx Lighthouse College Preparatory Academy was canceled after students threatened to walk out.
Cruz could have learned a thing or two from Kasich, the Republican presidential candidate who opened his meeting with the Daily News editorial board with an intoxicating blend of astonishment and praise for the city.
“I love being here. I just love being in New York. It’s so crazy, right?” Kasich said at the outset of his meeting. “I’m just a kid from McKees Rocks. I mean, being governor, I’ve accepted that. In New York City? Me? Running for president? It’s hard to believe.”
Two days later, the newspaper endorsed him.