State’s Lost Glory Is Gone for Good

New York’s political classes, a group that includes all manner of soothsayers, layabouts and long-lunchers, have decided that the New York primary really, really counts for something this year.

This, of course, is what they said about the 1992 Democratic primary. And the 1988 Democratic primary.

They were wrong then-Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton were the obvious nominees by the time the primaries got to New York. This time around, there’s a bit of truth to the hype, but only a bit.

Yes, all four candidates would love to win New York, but only one, Bill Bradley, absolutely must-and even if he does, he’d need lots of help elsewhere to claim March 7 as the beginning of a comeback. The other three can afford a loss here, particularly if a defeat in New York is matched, no, overwhelmed, by a victory in winner-take-all, delegate-rich California. The New York Republican establishment, on the other hand, will have no reason to be so sanguine if their favorite son of the South, George W. Bush, winds up blowing his once-commanding lead here. There are two errors those with dreams of Federal appointments try very hard to avoid: backing the wrong horse, and failing to deliver for the right horse. If some New York Bush supporters wish to sample life in the Beltway, their man had better win the nomination, and had better win here.

It was with relevancy in mind that New York switched its primary to early March. The notion, since replicated in other states, was to force candidates to pay attention before the rushed nominating process was wrapped up. Thanks to relentless pressure from news cyclists, political parties now try to decide on their Presidential nominees as quickly as possible. A quarter-century ago, long before cable-television political talk shows, states with late primaries exerted disproportionate influence on the nomination process. Campaigns were fought to the bitter end. It was good to be a California Democrat in 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy battled over the last primary before the convention.

California’s last-in-the-nation primary is now among the many in early March, a development that has foiled New York’s desperate attempt to persuade candidates of the Empire State’s grand importance. For the hulking presence of the Golden State overshadows this onetime political powerhouse of the American Century. The four candidates weren’t exactly ubiquitous in New York in late February, either in person or on the air. Greater prizes lay elsewhere-the West in particular.

New York’s seemingly inexorable decline into the middle of the pack among big states-just another Pennsylvania or Ohio-should temper the talk of those who insist that the state still counts among vote-counters. Sure, the city will remain important as a source for money and exposure. But otherwise the state will be indistinguishable from other large Rust Belt states. Gone are the days when to be a New York governor or senator or veteran Congressman was to be a Presidential candidate in waiting. The power that New York held in 1944, when both Presidential candidates were New York Governors (Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey), isn’t coming back. New York’s 33 electoral votes very likely will decline by two or three after the 2000 census, continuing a trend that began 40 years ago.

Of the 25 fastest-declining metropolitan areas in America, four are in New York. Eleven are in New England or in mid-Atlantic states like Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, eight of the 25 fastest-growing metropolitan areas are in the states that have supplanted, or are about to supplant, New York in total population and electoral votes: California, Texas and Florida.

After this election cycle, New York simply won’t be able to stand on its own and demand the attention of Presidential candidates, not when there are rewards to be reaped in the Sunbelt. The solution ought to be clear, except that it would require an unprecedented and perhaps impossible degree of regional cooperation-and some pride-swallowing on the banks of the Hudson.

If candidates are to be persuaded to pay greater attention to northeastern Rust Belt issues, they are more likely to be impressed by a northeastern regional primary than an earlier-than-thou primary in New York.

March 7 approaches that ideal, with much of New England joining New York in going to the polls. But there has been little effort to link the states and their shared concerns together. Imagine for a moment a primary in which New York, New Jersey, all of New England and Pennsylvania are at stake. No Sunbelt worshiper could get away with ignoring the region’s specific concerns, from public transportation to urban decay.

Then again, we live in an age when petty tensions between Gov. George Pataki and Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey have paralyzed the Port Authority. Perhaps we deserve our descent into irrelevancy.