It Will Take a Paterson Implosion for a Cuomo Restoration

A week ago, on the eve of Kirsten Gillibrand’s appointment to the United States Senate, I wrote that David Paterson

A week ago, on the eve of Kirsten Gillibrand’s appointment to the United States Senate, I wrote that David Paterson was making a smart move in spurning Andrew Cuomo because, in essence, the attorney general wouldn’t have the nerve to challenge him in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.

As of today, I still believe this is true, but the events of the past week have made clear that the trend is working against Paterson. Six months ago, he was broadly popular, both for his personality and his job performance. A few weeks ago, he was still well-liked, but moving into shaky territory in his job performance numbers. Now, after enduring days of rotten press coverage for his handling of the Senate appointment, the governor’s standing in polls has never been lower.

A Siena survey released on Wednesday found that 54 percent of voters now view Paterson favorably, compared to 30 percent who don’t – the first time he’s cracked 30 percent in the unfavorable category. More worryingly, a Siena poll from earlier in the week gave him a 51-45 percent approval rating. Matched against Cuomo in a prospective primary, the survey gave Paterson a statistically insignificant 36-34 percent advantage, with Cuomo running seven points better than the governor in a potential fall ’10 match-up with Rudy Giuliani.

Again, if he had to make a decision today, Cuomo – who, it’s safe to assume, would like to run for governor next year – would probably pass, however reluctantly. Yes, Paterson is clearly vulnerable, but he’s also still popular enough to win. And that would make taking him on too risky a proposition for Cuomo, who must weigh his considerable ambition against this cold, hard reality: one more loss, and you’re done for good.

It has been a long road back to Cuomo from that late summer day in 2002 when he was pressured to end his hopeless bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, bowing to a party establishment that he’d alienated and that was closing ranks behind Carl McCall, who then became the first black gubernatorial nominee in New York history. Cuomo emerged from the wreckage of his ’02 effort a bloodied and polarizing figure.

Quietly and doggedly, he tended to his relationships with key Democrats and the black community over the next four years, work that paid off in his election as attorney general in 2006 – a post Cuomo, like his predecessor Eliot Spitzer, has shrewdly used to build popularity through the high-profile pursuit of loathsome characters. Giving up that office to wage a primary campaign against the first black Democratic governor would represent a significant risk for Cuomo; a 50-50 chance of victory probably wouldn’t be enough to get him in.

But Cuomo doesn’t have to make a decision today, or tomorrow, or next week, or even next month. The primary won’t take place until September 2010. He has the luxury of waiting until late next winter, fully a year from now, before gauging Paterson’s vulnerability. In the meantime, he can gobble up more enviable press and push his popularity even higher (his favorable/unfavorable rating stands at 64/17, according to one on this week’s Siena polls).

For his part, Paterson must find a way to arrest the long and steady decline of his popularity. The stratospheric numbers that greeted his ascension last March were bound to drop, but they’ve now reached a critical point. Steady them (or improve them) over the next year, and Paterson will make the primary waters uninviting (to say the least) for Cuomo; but fail to do so, and a Cuomo challenge becomes almost inevitable.

The problem for Paterson is that a perception of general incompetence is taking hold, within the media and among the general public. His bungling of the Senate appointment process (voters seem to approve of the Gillibrand choice, just not the circus that preceded it) may have cemented this for many voters. As the economy worsens and he tackles what will surely be a brutal budget process, lack of confidence in Paterson is likely to grow, not shrink.

Cuomo’s mere presence adds another wrinkle. With his suddenly impressive poll numbers, he doesn’t need to lift a finger for the rest of this year: Any Democratic player in the state who is worried about Paterson’s ability to hold the office in 2010 (or offended by one of his moves as governor) will have a ready-made alternative in Cuomo. The Anyone But Paterson constituency won’t be split; it already has a candidate around whom it can unite.

Here, a parallel can be drawn to New Jersey in the spring of 2004, a year before then-Governor Jim McGreevey was to stand for re-election. His standing, much like Paterson’s, seemed to be in terminal decline; a series of scandals and missteps had called his basic management skills into question, and his approval rating might crack 45 percent in a good week. Republicans dreamed of facing him in 2005.

At the same time, then-Senator Jon Corzine made it clear (through unnamed leaks to the press – never through his own words) that he wouldn’t mind being governor and that he’d be willing to challenge McGreevey in ’05 if the party wanted him to. It was an awkward spectacle, not too different from the current Paterson/Cuomo dance: In public, McGreevey would praise Corzine and Corzine would praise McGreevey. In private, their aides plotted against each other. But the momentum was clearly with Corzine, and the final decision would be an easy one: If McGreevey didn’t turn around his poll number by the end of 2004, Corzine would run – and, almost certainly, win.

Of course, thanks to a certain Golan Cipel, it never came to that, and McGreevey fell on his own sword ten months before the June 2005 Democratic primary – which Corzine ran in, unopposed. Cuomo is now hewing to the Corzine model, calculating that, when the time comes, the necessary support will be there for him – provided the current governor continues to struggle.

Still, this doesn’t mean that Paterson blundered in not just sending Cuomo to the Senate last week. Again, consider the McGreevey example: If Corzine hadn’t been waiting in the wings (and if Cipel had never stepped forward), someone else (like South Jersey Congressman Rob Andrews) would have challenged him in ’05. And if McGreevey had survived that somehow, he would have faced the very real prospect of losing to the G.O.P. nominee in the fall.

 In other words, Jon Corzine was a symptom of Jim McGreevey’s serious political problems in 2004 – in the same way that Andrew Cuomo is now a symptom, and not a source, of David Paterson’s troubles today. It Will Take a Paterson Implosion for a Cuomo Restoration