10/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bloomberg v. Giuliani -- Yes or No?

This question requires a "yes" or "no" answer: Are the "lightning rounds" that have become fashionable in candidate debates dumb or what?

In a political system dominated by TV ads and spin, a debate gives voters a chance to see if candidates can produce any substance or depth. What better way to undermine that than with yes or no questions about such topics as whether someone owns a bike, thinks it's okay to spank kids or will back David Paterson in a hypothetical primary in more than a year?

In last week's Democratic mayoral debate, for example, we learned that neither Tony Avella nor Bill Thompson had ever done heavy drugs, owned a gun or been in a fistfight as a grown up. The choice on September 15th is now crystal clear.

These quickie questions always get an inordinate amount of post-debate ink and soundbite time, which really matters because more people read about the debates or watch highlights than sit down for the whole glorious thing. After the comptroller candidates faced off for an hour last month, for instance, most of the coverage focused on what letter grades the candidates gave to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Lightning rounds have been in use for several years, now, so candidates must know to expect them. One question that underdog Avella, a Queens councilman, and frontrunner Thompson, the city comptroller, had to know was coming last week was the one about whether Bloomberg has been a better mayor than Rudolph Giuliani. Avella hemmed and hawed before answering "yes." Thompson then answered "yes" as well. Later, both said that David Dinkins was a better mayor than Bloomberg.

Four years ago, the Giuliani versus Bloomberg question was asked of the four Democrats then vying for their party's nomination. Only Rep. Anthony Weiner said "no." Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and Council Speaker Gifford Miller both said "yes." "Oh yeah," said Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president and eventually nominee, in a voice that hinted, "Well, duh!"

People who detested Mayor Giuliani disliked him because of his appeals to the worst in people: their distaste for the poor, resentment of minorities and good old fashioned fear. People who like Mayor Bloomberg admire him for appealing to our better selves—the parts of us that want a

Still, some of the tough-guy policies made famous under Giuliani have continued or expanded under Bloomberg. Remember Rudy's emphasis on "quality of life"? The number of quality of life summonses in Bloomberg's first term jumped 30 percent over Giuliani's final term (2.2 million versus 1.7 million) and they are on pace to hit 2.2 million in the second Bloomberg term as well. Both Giuliani and Bloomberg have been unreceptive to pleas to apply for a federal waiver to allow out of work single adults more access to food stamps. And while Bloomberg has spoken to the better angels of our nature, that doesn't necessarily mean that he has lived up to all his admirably high-minded promises. Homelessness, for one, has been tricky.

So who was the better mayor? Next question, please.

The Giuliani-Bloomberg comparison was very popular in 2005 among liberals I talked to, especially those in the nonprofit sector. They saw a vast improvement in the policy atmosphere under Bloomberg after eight years of Rudy and saw Ferrer as providing little reason to rock the boat.

But as time goes by the comparison loses much of its meaning. The way the city changes makes it hard to stand two mayors side by side. Giuliani entered office when crack dealers were murdering hundreds of New Yorkers and hardly anyone without a "Tron" poster in their bedroom had even heard of the Internet. Bloomberg's New York has yuppies in Bushwick and armed-and-armored counter-terrorism cops patrolling Wall Street. Compare him to David Dinkins? One of four of today's New Yorkers hadn't been born when Dinkins became mayor. One in five hadn't entered the United States yet. Quick, was

What's more, if simply not being as loathsome as your predecessor was really an important test for a leader, Gerald Ford would be remembered as one of our greatest presidents. Instead, his legacy is that of a guy who fell down a lot.

Mike Bloomberg will be remembered for more than not having a bad comb-over and not making us red-faced with rage all the time. Will he be recalled fondly? Yes, no or maybe?