The New York mayor's latest nanny-state proposal -- a ban on soda -- has even many liberals leery. But the lame-duck Bloomberg is uniquely impervious to public opinion.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal to ban the sale of massive sodas this week was enough to awaken the inner libertarian of a lot of people who didn't know they had one -- like Jon Stewart.
"You're going to ban -- no!" the Daily Show host cried, brandishing a Big Gulp on Thursday's show. The proposal, he said, "combines the draconian government overreach people love with the probable lack of results they expect."
Elsewhere in New York, the state Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, was darkly muttering about "Big Brother" and contemplating legislative action to block the plan, while the speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn, called the plan "punitive."
The leery responses from prominent Democratic politicians -- Quinn is expected to run for mayor -- seemed like a good indication of where public sentiment was headed on the soda plan. Similarly, the state's Democratic former governor, Eliot Spitzer, said on his Current TV show Thursday that while he didn't see the soda ban as "a fundamental civil liberties issue," it was nonetheless enough to make him wonder: "What are the limits, in terms of our saying to government, 'Let me lead my life'?"
"They seem to be falling on the side of 'this is too much,' which is ironic from a bunch of New York City liberals," said Michael McKeon, a New York Republican political consultant. "Even for them, there seems to be a breaking point -- we just found it."
But for Bloomberg, none of this matters. His proposal would be implemented by a board of health stocked with his appointees, and he's a lame duck whose third and final term will end next year. Oh, plus, he's a zillionaire. More than anything, the uproar created by his soda restrictions serves to underscore the luxury enjoyed by the chief executive of America's largest city: Immunity to public opinion.
"The problem, for [his opponents], is that he doesn't care what people think of him. He just wants to do what he thinks is right," said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist and sometime Bloomberg adviser. "This mayor has taken on the gun industry, the tobacco industry, the trans fat industry, whatever that is. He thinks it's his job to keep people alive, whether people like it or not."
Particularly now that his time in office is running out, Bloomberg operates with a measure of impunity unique among major American political figures. Call him "Nanny Bloomberg" all you want; as the soda controversy indicates, he's not afraid to push for unpopular policies on the assumption that eventually, a grateful populace will thank him for his foresight.
In an interview, the New York City Health Commissioner, Thomas Farley, said public opinion is important, but when it comes to health, it's not the most important thing.
"Sure, we care what people think, and we have reason to think a lot of people are supporting of this," he said. "The other thing, though, is that we have a board of health in New York City for a reason, and that is to take the issue of protecting the health of citizens out of the political process and put it in the hands of health experts."
You wouldn't respond to a cholera outbreak, he argued, by putting it to a vote, and "obesity is a crisis."
Farley and other supporters of the proposal -- which would make it illegal to sell most high-sugar-content drinks in sizes larger than 16 ounces -- point to Bloomberg's previous paternalistic initiatives, particularly his move to ban indoor smoking in 2003. The city has also, on his watch, forced restaurants to post health inspection ratings and calorie counts, and banned them from serving food with trans fats.
"All of them were seen as government overreach when they were put into place, and now New Yorkers can't imagine when things were otherwise," Farley said.
The smoking ban, initially the subject of an intense backlash from both the the public and the bar and restaurant industry lobby, now looks prescient, as jurisdictions across the U.S. and the world have banned indoor smoking to one degree or another. These days, even France and Ireland have smoking bans.
"It's common for any policy that's a big change for people to have an initial reaction that's a little skeptical," Farley said. "But our experience has been, with some of these other policy changes, that after that initial skepticism was overcome and the policy was put into place, not only are they popular, but people say, 'Why didn't we do this earlier?'"
The soda restriction proposal comes after Bloomberg sought unsuccessfully to get a sugar tax through the state legislature, and as such, it also reflects the poor relations with Albany that have persisted through much of his tenure, observers note. Bloomberg-backed plans for congestion pricing for commuters and a football stadium on the city's West Side were similarly unsuccessful.
Bloomberg has defended the soda proposal by noting that people who want more soda are free to buy more than one of the smaller sizes.
"We're not taking away anybody's right to do things," Bloomberg said on MSNBC on Thursday. "We're simply forcing you to understand that you have to make the decision to go from one cup to another cup."
This defense has prompted some to wonder how the plan will have any effect if people can still buy massive amounts of soda. "Bloomberg Insists His Plan to Limit New Yorkers' Soda Sizes Cannot Possibly Work," was how the libertarian magazine Reason -- which, as you might guess, is not favorably disposed toward this or any other Bloomberg proposal -- described it. (The mayor, for his part, points to studies showing that portion size has an effect on how much people consume.)
For libertarians who see in every piece of regulation a slide down the slippery slope of government control, Bloomberg is their worst nightmare. From gun control to salty snacks, he's totally unabashed in his view that government has a role to play in individual choices; his litany of proposals, and the way they've spread beyond his city, continually proves he sees no end point for this kind of thing. It's hard to think of another American politician who pays as little lip service to the idea of personal freedom that's so deeply wired in the national psyche.
Call it arrogance or call it the courage to lead, but Bloomberg's allies and opponents agree he is a man who's not afraid to go it alone.
Doug Muzzio, a liberal commentator and professor of public affairs at Baruch College, called the soda proposal "absurd" and -- bad pun intended -- "fatuous." But he admitted some admiration for Bloomberg's brazen self-certainty, no matter how many may disagree.
"His administration's style is that they know they're right -- I am the philosopher king and you all are knaves and fools," Muzzio said.
Insulated by his billions and accountable to practically no one, Bloomberg is free to do as he sees fit.
"He's got nothing to lose -- literally nothing," Muzzio said. "If everybody's against him and it doesn't work, he just moves on."