Why Gillibrand Makes Sense (and Cuomo Doesn’t)

Go ahead, David Paterson, thumb your nose at Andrew Cuomo, the boundlessly ambitious political legacy who’s hoping to capitalize on the demise of another, slightly less ambitious, legacy: It won’t come back to haunt you.

Cuomo wants to be a U.S. senator for the same reason he wanted to be attorney general in 2006: to climb further up the political ladder, one step closer to national stardom, which has really been his only goal all along. And now that Caroline Kennedy and her mega-powerful backers are, you know, out of the way, Mario’s boy is the last big name standing.

Part of Cuomo’s strategy, of course, is to feign indifference, the same way would-be running mates always pretend they aren’t really interested in being vice president. Desperation can be very unflattering. But even though we haven’t heard much from him, the case for appointing the AG to the Senate continues to make its way into the media.

The case for Cuomo is largely built on a threat: If Paterson picks him, he won’t have to worry about a challenge from Cuomo in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.

As unseemly as this is, there is—on the surface—something to it. Cuomo, like Eliot Spitzer before him, has skillfully turned the AG’s office into a veritable publicity machine, garnering wide media attention with high-profile prosecutions that, quite conveniently, will make for nice bullet points in future campaign mailers. Six years after his disastrously abortive gubernatorial bid, Cuomo has completed a magnificent image rehab.

Meanwhile, the failing economy and an unpopular budget plan have conspired to end Paterson’s honeymoon. A Marist poll last week found that just 44 percent of New Yorkers think the governor’s performance has been excellent or good; 48 percent rate it fair or poor. Add in his accidental status, and Paterson looks increasingly vulnerable as 2010 approaches—and who could be more of a threat than Cuomo, with his name recognition and newfound popularity?

Well, not really. A reality check is probably in order.

Yes, Cuomo, if he can’t secure the Senate seat, would like to be governor. Besides elementary logic, we know this because of what happened last March, when Paterson suddenly found himself elevated to the governorship. Back then, the prospects of an open Senate seat were dim (Hillary Clinton had just lost 11 straight primaries and caucuses to Barack Obama); so the governorship was the ballgame as far as Cuomo’s ambition went. And if Paterson could be intimidated into accepting the job as a caretaker and not seeking a full term in ’10, Cuomo would get his chance.

In a brazen act of attempted intra-party sabotage, Mario Cuomo said of Paterson as he took power: “I think in his heart of hearts he’d rather be a legislator.”

But Paterson won’t be a caretaker and will be a candidate for a full term in ’10. And that means, however much he’d like to be governor, a jilted Cuomo would have some serious thinking to do. For one thing, Paterson’s popularity rises considerably when only the electorate is narrowed to just Democrats—as it would be in a Paterson-Cuomo contest. Among Democrats, 54 percent rate the governor’s performance as excellent or good, compared to 37 percent who judge it fair or poor.

Paterson would also benefit from the power of incumbency, the ability to shower favors on influential party leaders in exchange for their support. And, as we saw when Flight 1549 went down last week, major and unforeseen news events give Paterson, as governor, the opportunity to build goodwill and popularity and to benefit from the same “rally around the flag” effect that bolsters presidents in times of crisis. Cuomo couldn’t compete with that.

There’s also Paterson’s status as the first black governor in New York history, a source of pride for many Democrats, whether black or white. Trying to push him aside could generate a backlash against Cuomo, who should know all about that possibility, given his disastrous primary run in 2002 against Carl McCall.

For all the chatter, it’s very doubtful that Cuomo would ultimately pull the trigger on a primary campaign. He’d be likely to lose, and defeat would put him all the way back to where he was in ’02—defeated and exiled. Since he’d have to give it up to run for governor, there’d be no AG’s office, with its magically restorative powers, to fall back on.

So Cuomo’s threat—the main selling point of his Senate appointment push—is probably empty. And Paterson seems to know it. Already, Andrea Mitchell has reported that the governor is likely to appoint Kirsten Gillibrand, and not Cuomo (or any of the other lesser-known aspirants).

Gillibrand is a better choice, anyway. As a second-term congresswoman, she lacks statewide name recognition, but she’s quite marketable—young and telegenic with a moderate image and upstate roots that will help build cross-party support.

This matters because, despite its strong Democratic bent, New York is at least potentially competitive in 2010. No longer will Democrats be able to define themselves against Bush, Cheney and Tom DeLay. If the economy remains a wreck, they will pay a price—and Obama, his honeymoon long over, won’t be able to save them. In 2008, any Democrat from any part of the state and of any ideological stripe would have been a shoo-in in a New York Senate race. Appealing to independent voters won’t be nearly as easy in 2010.

The knocks on Gillibrand involve her breaks from Democratic orthodoxy on gun control and tax cuts and the competitive nature of her House district, which might be lost to a Republican if she were to leave.

Instead of insisting on rigid ideological purity, though, Democrats should appreciate the value of Gillibrand’s heresies. For all of its emotional weight, gun control is largely a symbolic issue. It will play little or no role in the current Congress. But by opposing it, Gillibrand makes herself infinitely more appealing to conservative-leaning independent voters upstate, who could be up for grabs in ’10. That they’d be receptive to Gillibrand is highly significant. The same, roughly, goes for her stance on the Bush tax cuts (which Obama himself now seems intent on keeping).

As for her district, elevating Gillibrand to the Senate might actually solve a problem for Democrats. Redistricting is two years away, and New York will almost certainly lose a House seat. With so few Republicans in the delegation, Democrats are facing the prospect of pitting two of their own against each other in a primary. But with Gillibrand gone, her district could simply be carved up, protecting every other Democratic incumbent.

So go right ahead, David Paterson, and send Gillibrand to the Senate. She’ll be a strong candidate in 2010. And you still won’t have to worry about Andrew Cuomo.

Why Gillibrand Makes Sense (and Cuomo Doesn’t)