03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Mayoral Race That Wasn't

Bill Thompson held up fairly well in Tuesday night's mayoral debate. Unfortunately, his staggering campaign needed more than a victory by a nose.

He needed the kind of moment in which Mayor Michael Bloomberg fell to the floor weeping, or suddenly admitted that he was an alien from outer space, disguised as a human in order to carry out a sinister intergalactic plot to strip the earth of all its valuable sea salts.

Didn't happen.

Thompson really went after Bloomberg for violating the two-term limit. That is exactly what all the experts said he should do. The vast majority of New Yorkers aren't really comfortable with the idea of the rich guy doing an end run around the rules.

But it made no difference whatsoever. The real thing the debate proved is that the fact that Bloomberg wants to sneak an extra slice of the mayoral-tenure pie isn't enough to keep him from getting re-elected.

Just a few weeks from the finish line, Thompson's campaign is so desperate that when a Democratic elected official endorses the Democratic candidate for mayor, it's news.

The most spectacular example of Thompson's desperation came when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked who President Obama supports in the race. "The president is the leader of the Democratic Party and as that would support the Democratic nominee," Gibbs responded.

He added that Obama "obviously has a tremendous amount of respect" for Bloomberg, who is not the Democratic nominee. And then, without ever mentioning who the Democratic nominee actually is, Gibbs moved on to another topic.

Thompson was so thrilled by this backhanded endorsement that you'd have thought he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He immediately called a press conference to announce "how proud and honored I am."

What's going on here? Thompson is a perfectly respectable candidate, a two-term city Comptroller and former Board of Education head. He's personable; he's never been involved in a major scandal. And he's running in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 5-1.

But nobody seems to think he can win. Including Barack Obama.

Obviously, a billionaire incumbent has an advantage. On TV, Bloomberg's ads are everywhere -- he ran nearly 900 in September, compared to -- my God, this is depressing -- 14 for Thompson.

But the general lack of enthusiasm for Thompson has roots in something more serious than a super-rich opponent. The people of New York City believe in the values of the Democratic Party, but they don't trust it to produce strong leaders on the local level.

New York, that bluest of blue cities, hasn't had a Democratic mayor since David Dinkins was defeated by Rudy Giuliani in 1993. Dinkins was not a bad mayor, although he admittedly didn't set the world on fire. Giuliani, after a couple of years of refreshing toughness on crime and city spending, was not a very good one -- by the end he was downright awful. But the city was still left with an image of a weak Democratic clubhouse politician being tossed into the dustbin of history by a stern, no-nonsense successor.

We haven't gotten over that image, in part because the city Democrats haven't given us much of an alternative. Christine Quinn, the City Council President, got entangled in a series of dumb scandals about the budget process. Our Congressional delegation has always been depressingly mediocre. Except Charles Rangel, who was the city's pride, its superstar -- until he became our tax-evading, rent-stabilized-apartment-hogging embarrassment.

When New York Democrats think of the party they identify with, they think of Obama or Ted Kennedy or Hillary Clinton. When they think of the party they're stuck with on the local level, they envision -- nobody. Faceless hacks. Inept state legislators. A pol on a perp walk.

When an average candidate like Bill Thompson is forced to bear the burden of that image, he starts the race with a hopeless disadvantage, especially when his opponent is a cool, haughty but competent pseudo-Republican like Bloomberg.

Somebody needs to fix the New York Democratic Party. But the people who have the standing and the power, like Sen. Chuck Schumer, don't want to have anything more to do with it than absolutely necessary.

Although at least Schumer did endorse Thompson.