The Last Thing David Paterson Wanted

If David Paterson seems particularly anguished by the lunacy unfolding in and around the State Senate chamber, it’s for good reason: His chance for political redemption is slipping away—and there’s not much he can do about it.

The governor’s political comeback strategy, to the extent he has one, relies on using his incumbency to showcase his executive prowess and build public confidence in his leadership. This means pushing high-profile legislation through the Assembly and Senate and signing it into law. With a series of popular legislative achievements, Paterson, the thinking goes, would then find voters much more receptive to giving him a chance at a full term in 2010.

This week’s Senate coup, and the insane (and ongoing) aftermath, severely complicates that game plan. Before Monday, Paterson enjoyed majorities in both chambers, which made his strategy at least theoretically plausible. Yes, the Democrats’ hold on the Senate was tenuous and Majority Leader Malcolm Smith’s ability to deliver 32 votes for anything was in constant question, but at least Paterson had something to work with.

But now? Forget it. Exactly how the chaos will sort out is anyone’s guess, but the days of a clear, functional Democratic majority seem to be over for the foreseeable future.

Democrats are twisting Hiram Monserrate’s arm, trying to coax him back into their fold, and there are signs it may be working. But even if Monserrate flips back, that would only give the Democrats 31 votes, one shy of a majority. They would also need to win back Pedro Espada, who has claimed the title of Senate president pro tempore under the leadership of his new Republican allies. And Espada is adamant that he’s staying put.

That means the best-case resolution for Democrats is probably a 31-31 split—with no lieutenant governor to break the tie in their favor. The worst-case would be Monserrate and Espada both sticking with the G.O.P.—and perhaps another Democrat or two (or more) joining them. (Democrats are also working on a legal strategy to void Monday’s coup, but as many observers—including Paterson—have noted, this would be an almost pointless remedy: If the Republicans have 31 or 32 votes, it won’t matter if Smith still gets to call himself “majority leader.”)

None of this does any good for Paterson. A hopelessly deadlocked Senate would, obviously, result in constant chaos for as long as it lasts. Not only would Paterson be unable to push legislation through the chamber, he’d also stand to take the fall for the mayhem.

Why? Because voters don’t pay much attention to who’s who and what’s what in Albany. Generally, they know who the governor is, and not much else. So, to the extent that they perceive Albany to be spiraling out of control, it’s Paterson whose poll numbers will suffer. Voters already don’t like Paterson as a leader and believe he’s an incompetent failure. If they spend the next few months hearing about how dysfunctional the State Senate has become, it will simply give them another reason to believe their governor is just not up to the job—better to get someone new in there and start fresh! This may not be fair, but governors are like basketball coaches: They get too much blame (and credit) for things they have no control over.

It will be no better for him if Republicans emerge from this week with a clear majority. We can already imagine the spin from Paterson’s people: this would free him to emulate Bill Clinton in 1995 or Harry Truman in 1948, positioning himself as the principled guardian of the public interest against a hostile Republican legislative majority. But Democrats still dominate the Assembly and Republicans would, at best, enjoy only the most slender and tenuous of majorities in the Senate. No one would confuse Dean Skelos and his G.O.P. conference with Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolutionaries.

In reality, all a G.O.P. Senate majority would offer Paterson is a massive roadblock to the enactment of the kind of signature set of achievements that the governor badly needs as ’10 approaches.

Paterson needs significant improvement in his poll numbers by early next year, when Democrats—in advance of their late spring state convention—will begin to make serious decisions about who will head their fall ticket. The good news for Paterson is that he won’t need to have an overwhelming approval rating to survive that process. He’ll just need to be popular enough (a 45 percent approval rating, say) to have credibility and to keep his base together. This would probably be enough to scare off Andrew Cuomo, who badly wants the gubernatorial nomination but who doesn’t want to have to fight Paterson for it in a bloody primary.

The bad news for Paterson has been that it’s been very difficult to see how he could recover even that much popularity. This week’s coup doesn’t help. The Last Thing David Paterson Wanted