Carolyn Maloney and the Dither of a Lifetime

The pattern is clear: Carolyn Maloney’s camp puts out the word that her entry into next year’s Senate race is imminent, the press responds with all of the obligatory stories about the insurgent nature of her effort, and then…nothing happens.

The latest chapter in this saga of indecision and inaction was completed over the weekend, when Maloney told the New York Post that—contrary to her own aide’s statement of a week earlier—she would not be announcing her candidacy on Monday or Tuesday of this week.

We’ve been down this road before. Back in May, as one prospective Democratic challenger after another dropped out, Maloney pronounced herself “sure” that Kirsten Gillibrand would be opposed in the Democratic primary. That got everyone talking, but Maloney never followed through.

Then, in early June, multiple news outlets reported that Maloney had decided to run and would soon announce her plans. But nothing happened. A month later, her aide said an announcement would come within two weeks. It didn’t. Then came the promise of this week’s announcement—and the inevitable letdown. Maloney is now one idling airplane away from a perfect imitation of Mario Cuomo circa 1991.

There are several possible explanations for Maloney’s confusing signals, among them sheer incompetence. But the most likely is that Maloney, who would have to give up her safe House seat and 18 years worth of committee seniority to run for the Senate, is just as conflicted as her actions make her seem.

This is certainly understandable. Maloney will turn 62 next year, meaning that 2010 will more than likely mark her final shot at moving up to the Senate. Sure, Gillibrand could go on to lose in the fall, opening the door for a new Democrat to run for a full Senate term in 2012, but in a state as Democratic as New York, that’s not much for Maloney to hang her hat on. So it’s now or never.

And Maloney clearly feels, with some justification, that Gillibrand’s seat really ought to be hers. After all, of all of the members of Congress who openly lobbied for an appointment from David Paterson, Maloney was the longest-tenured. And if Paterson was intent on selecting a woman to replace Hillary Clinton, well, couldn’t he have at least picked one with unquestioned adherence to the Democratic Party’s core values? After nearly two decades in the House, it must irk Maloney no end to see an upstart like Gillibrand leapfrogging her way to glory.

But that powerful ambition and sense of entitlement are checked by political reality: a campaign against Gillibrand would be an immense uphill struggle, one that seems to grow more daunting by the day. That so many party leaders, from Barack Obama down, are exerting so much effort to keep her out surely aggravates Maloney. But just as surely, she recognizes the electoral implications of the unified political and financial backing Gillibrand enjoys. The polls may be close now, but the playing field is tilted strongly in the appointed incumbent’s favor.

And so Maloney bounces back and forth. One week, her emotions win out and she readies herself to run, the hell with the party establishment. The next, she considers her prospects soberly and realizes that, if she does challenge Gillibrand, the most likely result is that she’ll end up permanently retired from big-time politics at age 62. That’s when the House, and all of that seniority she’s racked up, starts to look pretty good to Maloney.

Perhaps what she’s really waiting for is some big-name Democrat to urge her into the race—someone who could grab the public’s attention and convince them that a Maloney Senate campaign would be rooted not in pique but in high-minded principle.

Here, a rough parallel can be drawn to John Kerry, who began looking for an opening to run for president almost as soon as he was elected to the Senate in 1984. 1988 was too soon and in 1992 he was blocked out by his fellow Bay Stater Paul Tsongas.

But when Bill Clinton was elected in the fall of ’92, Kerry circled his calendar for 2000, then spent the ‘90s trying to modulate his liberal Massachusetts rhetoric to make himself a more attractive national candidate.

What Kerry didn’t count on was how concerted an effort the Clinton White House and the national Democratic Party would launch on behalf of Al Gore. Previous vice presidents, like George H.W. Bush, had to fight for their parties’ nominations, but top Democrats were determined to give theirs to Gore without a fight.

One by one in 1998 and 1999, Gore’s most likely intraparty challengers acceded to this reality and removed themselves from the White House mix—Bob Kerrey, Dick Gephardt, Paul Wellstone and so on.

At first, Kerry resisted. 2000 was supposed to be his time. All he wanted, it seemed, was for someone—anyone—to go public with a plea for him to jump in the race. Or at least to make a statement that, you know, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he ran. But no one would, not even anyone from Massachusetts’ all-Democratic congressional delegation. Finally, he took the hint and got out. (Gore ended up facing one challenger, Bill Bradley, who lost every primary and caucus he entered.)

At least Kerry knew when he backed down that there might be another day for his dream (and sure enough, when Gore finally conceded to George W. Bush in December 2000, that day came). Maloney doesn’t even have that luxury—this is it.

No wonder it’s taking her so long to decide.

Carolyn Maloney and the Dither of a Lifetime