What's the Matter With Central Park West?

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"Thomas Frank, a left-wing journalist and author of the bestseller What's the Matter With Kansas?, … argues that conservatives have been duping lower- and middle-class voters into voting Republican, when any moron can see that these people should vote their class interests—that is, vote Democrat. 'The preeminent issue of our day,' Frank writes, is 'people getting their interests wrong.'" —National Review, September 9, 2004

The thirty-seven blocks of residential towers that line the western edge of Central Park, from its lower end at Columbus Circle to the age-old social barrier of Ninety-sixth Street, make up a self-contained world whose sprawling apartments, with their high-ceilinged living rooms, formal dining rooms, and unobtrusive maids' quarters, are home to investment bankers, corporate lawyers, and media executives. And yet in a baffling testament to the failure of Americans to grasp their economic self-interest, the residents of CPW (as locals colloquially call their street) overwhelmingly voted for John Kerry and the Democrats.

This shouldn't be! The very apartment names—the El Dorado, the San Remo, the Majestic, the Dakota—suggest the robber-baron ethos of an age when the Republicans William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge guaranteed low-tax prosperity. And the Bush tax cuts should have eased the burdens on these hard-pressed New Yorkers as they valiantly juggle co-op board assessments, Dalton tuitions, Telluride ski vacations, and East Hampton property taxes. Surely the well-heeled voters in these prestigious climes understand that they will benefit from the president's plan to transform Social Security into an income-transfer program for Wall Street. (And Iraq? Parents along CPW have more reason to worry about wangling a table at Per Se, or getting on the right benefit committee, than about whether their son's National Guard unit will be dispatched overseas.)

Why, then, does Central Park West cling so stubbornly to irrational Democratic Party loyalties? The most plausible explanation is that the prickly voters of CPW feel that their traditional moral values (getting into Yale on merit, reading books other than the Bible, cherishing things from France) are not fully embraced by President Bush. Often it is the little things that rankle. Why does the administration refuse to promote tuition vouchers for students at Ethical Culture? How come the Bush daughters have not displayed the slightest bit of interest in working at Vanity Fair? How can Bush vacation in Crawford, Texas, which lacks both a major symphony orchestra and good Hunan delivery? CPW is an insular and hidebound neighborhood, brimming with cultural resentments unfathomable to outlanders. Failing to penetrate this region could place the Republicans in grave political danger—after all, as goes Central Park West, so go Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket (leaving the party with only the South, the heartland, and the Rocky Mountain West—along with control of the White House, Congress, and the courts). But it would take just a few gestures (an East Room gala honoring Wendy Wasserstein; a sturgeon, eggs, and bagel brunch on the White House lawn) to turn Central Park West into as reliable a Republican bastion as, say, Kansas.

Walter Shapiro has covered the past seven presidential campaigns for Esquire, USA Today, The Atlantic, and other publications. He is the author of One-Car Caravan, a chronicle of the 2004 Democratic primary race.
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