What’s Bad for Paterson Is Bad for Giuliani

Apparently, Rudy Giuliani was attempting self-deprecation when he said at a business breakfast Thursday morning that “the only way I could get elected governor is the way I got elected mayor—things have to be so bad.”

But his observation is basically accurate, and it’s one that’s applicable not just in New York but across the country: When one party is clearly in the minority, its only realistic path to victory requires the dominant party to screw up royally.

We’ve seen this many times in many different contexts.

Ronald Reagan, for instance, was once considered such an extreme right-winger that he’d have no chance in a national election. But he picked the right year to run: In 1980, the unemployment, inflation and interest rates seemed permanently stuck in double-digits, and a humiliating hostage crisis in Iran had wounded the country’s pride and confidence.

Had Reagan been the G.O.P. nominee four years earlier, he would certainly have been trounced by Jimmy Carter; but by ’80, the country was so desperate that it was willing to take a chance on Reagan, and the rest, for better or worse, is history.

In New York, Republicans are, obviously, the weaker party. Not only are they outnumbered five-to-three in voter registration, they also suffer from their association with the toxic national G.O.P. brand—one that has, since 1994, come to be defined by Southerners, Christian fundamentalists, George W. Bush and (a recent addition) Sarah Palin. The default position of most New Yorkers is to vote Democratic, something that—in most years—is too much for the Republican candidate to overcome.

On paper, 2010 actually looks like the right year for Giuliani—or for any Republican—to run for governor. The Democratic governor elected in 2006, Eliot Spitzer, was forced from office in disgrace and his successor, David Paterson, has squandered his honeymoon and now finds himself with perhaps the worst gubernatorial approval rating in the nation. Seventy-one percent of respondents in a recent Quinnipiac poll pronounced themselves dissatisfied with the state’s direction. Oh, and the Bush bogeyman that served as electoral gold for Democrats this decade is finally gone.

And yet it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing any “Rudy ’10” buttons in the future.

Giuliani’s interest in the governor’s race has, more than likely, hinged on the prospects of Paterson emerging as the Democratic nominee. Nine months ago, Paterson’s odds of doing so were quite good. At the same time, his approval rating, which soared after he took over for Spitzer, had returned to earth as the economy and the dysfunction in Albany began to exact their toll. A perfect Rudy scenario seemed to be in the works: Paterson would be just strong enough to secure the Democratic nomination but too weak to win in the fall.

But then the bottom fell out for Paterson, and the equation changed. With approval ratings in the mid-40 percent range, Paterson would have been able to keep much of his party’s establishment at bay. But when his numbers crashed to the 20 percent range, his plausibility as a general-election candidate vanished. Democrats who would have had been compelled to nervously bite their tongues and line up behind the state’s first black governor were suddenly equipped with the justification to dump Paterson for a new, more electable candidate.

That candidate, of course, is Andrew Cuomo, who has shrewdly turned the attorney general’s office into the unofficial Cuomo-for-Future-Statewide-Office headquarters. Cuomo is not just a stronger ’10 candidate than Paterson (who isn’t at this point?), he’s also now the most popular politician in the state.

For all of his impressive poll numbers, though, Cuomo would be helpless to thwart Paterson in ’10 if the governor was posting even mediocre poll numbers. With, say, a 45 percent approval rating, Paterson would have the standing to lay claim to his party’s ’10 mantle—and to dare Cuomo, who already tried to push aside Carl McCall in 2002, to try to stop him. It would be too risky a move for Cuomo.

Not so anymore. Paterson’s hideous and seemingly intractable poll numbers will not permit him to play that game—not when every Democrat invested in his or her party’s control of the State House can plainly see that nominating Paterson in ’10 wouldn’t just be an iffy move, it would mean certain defeat. This makes Cuomo the unstoppable force on the Democratic side, and leaves Paterson powerless to derail him (unless he can somehow double his approval ratings in the next six months or so).

So, instead of running against a battered and beatable Paterson in the fall, Giuliani is now faced with the prospect of a race against the surging Cuomo. Last month’s Quinnipiac poll powerfully illustrates the difference: Against Paterson, Giuliani wins, 52 to 34 percent; against Cuomo, he loses, 51 to 39.

Granted, a 12-point gap more than a year before Election Day isn’t necessarily too much to overcome. But it’s logical to assume that, as he eyes the race, Giuliani will err on the side of caution.

He cashed in his stunning post-9/11 popularity for a presidential campaign that went poorly and tarnished his image as “America’s mayor.” Posting a win for governor of New York would make for a nice comeback story, but a loss could be devastating to Giuliani’s legacy. And he’ll be 66 next year. He’s not likely to get another comeback try if a ’10 bid were to fall short.

Every campaign involves some level of risk. For Giuliani, a campaign against Paterson would make for an acceptable risk. He’ll probably never get a chance to take it.

What’s Bad for Paterson Is Bad for Giuliani