Paterson’s Hail Mary

As Hail Mary passes go, this one isn’t bad.

Since his popularity collapsed back in January, David Paterson has been in a nearly impossible situation. An unelected incumbent, he’d blown his once-in-a-lifetime chance to convert an accidental gubernatorial honeymoon into an enduring base of popular support, prompting the public to give up on him and tune him out.

His predicament was made all the worse by the looming presence of Andrew Cuomo and his 70-plus percent approval ratings, just waiting to step in next spring—with most of the Democratic establishment behind him. Winning back the public (and the poll-conscious party establishment) couldn’t be accomplished by any conventional means: His only real hope was some dramatic, unforeseen development that might cast his leadership in a different light.

This could—emphasis on could—be that development. Paterson’s surprise decision to appoint Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor, legally questionable as it is, works for the accidental incumbent in four key areas:

Publicity

This is no small matter. Most gubernatorial actions simply don’t attract enough media coverage to register with casual voters—the folks who barely pay attention to politics and are swayed by whatever the dominant media narrative happens to be. This is partly why there is no conventional solution to Paterson’s travails; governing competently might win him some nice newspaper write-ups, but that’s not the same as being the lead story on television.

But his 5 p.m. announcement on Wednesday was covered live on network affiliate stations across the state—and led their later newscasts as well. With hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of casual voters watching, Paterson was able to present himself exactly as he needs to be seen—as a man of action dramatically seeking to use his executive authority to end the lunacy in Albany.

On Wednesday, casual voters had no choice but to pay attention to Paterson. And the story won’t fade for some time, with court challenges a certainty.

A Strong Argument 

The media saturation would be worthless or even counter-productive if Paterson was making a weak or flimsy argument. But he’s not. There is universal agreement that the State Senate deadlock is hurting the state, and plenty of legal experts believe that Paterson is completely within his power to attempt to appoint a lieutenant governor who could break the logjam.

Paterson is well-positioned to claim the moral high ground here. The 76-year-old Ravitch may not be widely known, but he comes across as the quintessential Wise Old Man—the perfect symbol for Paterson to align himself with. Moreover, Paterson’s insistence that Ravitch won’t run with him in 2010 makes it easier to sell this move as a good-faith response to the Senate stalemate, and not an overtly political act.

Senate Republicans have already indicated that they will challenge the appointment, but their case—even if it ends up carrying the day in the courts—will not sell nearly as well in the court of public opinion. Paterson’s refrain is simple: “Those children up in Albany refuse to put the interests of the state first, so I stepped in and did something—and now, predictably, they’re fighting me.” The G.O.P. response will be: “Paterson is looking for publicity and overstepping his constitutional authority.” This is a very good fight for Paterson.

The Cuomo Factor

This also sets up a fight between Paterson and Cuomo, who has said that Paterson lacks the authority to appoint an L.G. Finally, Paterson has an opportunity to define himself—with the whole state watching—in opposition to the man who wants to snatch his job next year.

Again, as with the Republicans, Cuomo’s legal case may well be solid. Who knows? But to voters, it’s a bizarre argument: “You mean to tell us that, even though this is the one time in history that we actually need a lieutenant governor, we’re supposed to just leave the office vacant for another 18 months?” Paterson’s case is more compelling: “This is lunacy. We need a lieutenant governor NOW.”

Intra-Party Politics

If he were to assume office, Ravitch would presumably cast tie-breaking votes that would sit well with the Democratic base. This would improve Paterson’s standing with key interest groups and with the ’10 primary electorate. It could also ease tensions with Democrats in Albany who have resented his grandstanding—using them as pawns by calling meaningless emergency sessions—this past month. If Ravitch’s appointment stands, de facto control of the Senate will have been returned to the Democrats.

Still, it must be stressed that the Ravitch appointment remains a Hail Mary for Paterson. It gave him a jolt of publicity on Wednesday, but a few quick court rulings—or another celebrity death—could make the story disappear quickly.

And even if the story persists and Paterson does win the headline battle, it might not give him the kind of polling bang he needs: a 10-point surge in his approval rating would still put him at about 30 percent—roughly where George W. Bush stood in 2008. To survive next year, Paterson needs that number to be well into the 40s. And he needs to be running within about 10 points of Cuomo in primary match-ups; right now, the gap is between 40 and 50 points.

But give Paterson credit: In a terrible political predicament, he made an unusually bold and savvy move. There should be a pay-off for him. The question is whether it will be big enough.

Paterson’s Hail Mary