The Consequences of Paterson’s Bungling

It’s quite a feat that David Paterson just pulled off, making a politically shrewd Senate appointment while still managing to shoot himself in the foot in the process.

The extent of Paterson’s (mostly) self-inflicted damage has mainly become apparent in the aftermath of his formal decision to send Kirsten Gillibrand – and not Caroline Kennedy or Andrew Cuomo – to the Senate, with media coverage focusing as much on the governor’s perceived ineptitude as the new senator herself.

It’s possible to feel some sympathy for the governor in all of this. It’s not like he asked for Kennedy to decide it was time to join her uncle Ted in the Senate – or for the ensuing arm-twisting campaign on her behalf by the most powerful Democrats in Washington.

It’s quite a feat that David Paterson just pulled off, making a politically shrewd Senate appointment while still managing to shoot himself in the foot in the process.

The extent of Paterson’s (mostly) self-inflicted damage has mainly become apparent in the aftermath of his formal decision to send Kirsten Gillibrand – and not Caroline Kennedy or Andrew Cuomo – to the Senate, with media coverage focusing as much on the governor’s perceived ineptitude as the new senator herself.

It’s possible to feel some sympathy for the governor in all of this. It’s not like he asked for Kennedy to decide it was time to join her uncle Ted in the Senate – or for the ensuing arm-twisting campaign on her behalf by the most powerful Democrats in Washington.

And once Kennedy pulled off a rather stunning feat of her own by botching the seemingly mundane act of going on a “listening tour,” Paterson was in an even tougher spot: Keep the party heavyweights happy by picking a woman who was clearly in over her head as a politician and who might conceivably lose the seat in 2010, or expose himself to the wrath of those same heavyweights by snubbing the Kennedy family and going with a less polarizing and more electable alternative.

Exactly what transpired to prompt Kennedy’s last-minute withdrawal from consideration, we may never know. Paterson’s sin, and the source of much of the post-announcement fallout, came in not leaving well enough alone. With Kennedy out, whatever the reason, he had an opening to tap Gillibrand, a candidate with considerable political upside, without appearing to spurn Kennedy and the Democratic establishment. But in the chaos that surrounded Kennedy’s mysterious withdrawal, Paterson’s forces gave in to the temptation to play the games of leaks, spreading the word that – supposedly – Kennedy had some sort of baggage that had ruined her chances.

Maybe there was something to this, and maybe not. Either way, Paterson should have chosen to stay above it. What’s happened since isn’t a surprise: His basic leadership skills have been called into question, the Kennedy family is irate and, presumably, his would-be intraparty rival, Cuomo, smells blood.

The awful media coverage comes at a sensitive time for Paterson, whose popularity has dipped as the economy has tanked and while he’s pushed an unpopular budget plan. Right now, his numbers are ominous but still survivable. But opinions of Paterson, an accidental governor unknown to most New Yorkers less than a year ago, are still taking shape and hardening. The Kennedy fiasco will make it easy for the press and Paterson’s political foes to paint any future misstep or controversy as being part of a narrative of incompetence. The rebukes in the press have been loud enough to reach even casual and mostly disengaged voters.

The Kennedy family’s response, which took the form of several vicious broadsides in Sunday’s newspapers against Paterson from unnamed Kennedy family associates, was only a matter of time. The most inflammatory quote was reported in the New York Post: “The governor’s going to pay for this,” said a well-placed Democrat. “Ted is furious. The family is furious. The Kennedys are now against the governor.”

All of this, of course, must be music to the ears of the über-ambitious Cuomo, who according to Sunday’s New York Times is – again, not at all surprisingly – “upbeat” and “confident” in the wake of the Gillibrand appointment. If Paterson’s numbers continue to plummet, then Cuomo, thanks to his stint in the image rehab center otherwise known as the state attorney general’s office, could find himself in position to mount what should have been an unthinkably awkward primary challenge in 2010.

Cuomo, as The Times pointed out, is now “clearly the most formidable potential obstacle to Mr. Paterson’s winning election in his own right.” But this doesn’t mean that Paterson was wrong to snub the AG for the Senate seat, a move that obviously would have taken Cuomo out of the gubernatorial mix next year.

Cuomo will only challenge Paterson if there is a reasonable chance of victory – the price of defeat would be devastating to his long-term ambition. Right now, with 54 percent of the Democratic electorate giving Paterson good-to-excellent marks as governor, Cuomo almost certainly wouldn’t run. But if that number drops considerably, he probably will, and he’d be well positioned to win.

But Paterson wouldn’t suddenly be in position to overcome such awful poll numbers just by sending Cuomo to D.C. It would simply mean that the threat would come from elsewhere – maybe in a primary, maybe in the general election, and probably in both. Paterson’s challenges in ’10 involve far more than just keeping Andrew Cuomo on the sidelines.

It’s also worth noting that the Kennedy family’s apparent vow of retribution isn’t automatically good news for Cuomo, either. Don’t forget that Cuomo, just over five years ago, committed the same transgression against the Kennedys that Paterson is now guilty of: using the press to sully one of their own. That would be when unnamed sources close to Cuomo went to the press to accuse Cuomo’s then-wife, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, of cheating on him with one of his best friends. The couple was divorcing at the time, and Cuomo’s antics landed what was initially presented as an amicable split on the front-pages of the New York tabloids – “Kennedy Betrayal!” the Post screamed.

All of this, of course, is overshadowing Gillibrand. In a sense, this proves the basic wisdom of Paterson’s choice. Some on the left are upset by her moderate profile (and gun control views in particular), but overall she is a sound selection, one capable of uniting most of the party and winning over the swing voters who will decide the ’10 election. From the very beginning of the process, her upside stood out – even compared to Kennedy and Cuomo. For his own sake, though, it’s too bad Paterson’s announcement strategy wasn’t nearly as smart as his ultimate selection.

The Consequences of Paterson’s Bungling