Paterson’s Moment, Diminished

Just when David Paterson seemed to be onto something, Democrats in the State Senate decided on Thursday to welcome back the thief thug half of the “thief and thug” duo that defected to the G.O.P. last month, apparently ending the stalemate in the chamber and restoring a 32-30 Democratic majority.

This dramatically deflates the significance of Paterson’s surprise appointment of Richard Ravitch to serve as lieutenant governor.

On live statewide television on Wednesday evening, Paterson declared the extraordinary (and constitutionally questionable) appointment essential on two grounds: With the addition of a tie-breaking lieutenant governor, the Senate would again be functional, and critical legislation dealing with the economic crisis would be passed; and questions about the gubernatorial line of succession—which have prevented Paterson from leaving the state for the last month—would be cleared up.

His case was strong and compelling. Sure, Republicans (and Andrew Cuomo) immediately branded it unconstitutional, but to casual voters—who were actually paying attention for once!—Paterson had the most digestible argument: What the heck is the point of a having an office of lieutenant governor if there’s no way to fill it the one time you actually need it?

The promise of Paterson’s ploy was that it would spur a protracted and high-profile fight, with Cuomo and the G.O.P. resorting to all sorts of legalistic arguments that, at the end of the day, would leave the Senate in a hopeless deadlock. Meanwhile, Paterson would stand his ground and, with the Wise Old Man Ravitch at his side, tell the public over and over that he was the only one actually interested in getting something done in Albany. As strategies go—especially for a governor with a 20 percent approval rating—this was a pretty good one.

But its potential to change the disastrous Paterson narrative is now diminished. With Democrats again in control of the Senate, the urgency that made the governor’s move so compelling has dissipated.

To be sure, a case can still be made that having a lieutenant governor would be a good thing. With the chamber so closely divided, tie votes are still possible, and exactly whom the Democrats plan to name Senate president—and for how long—is still unclear. With a lieutenant governor in place, the gubernatorial line of succession wouldn’t be subject to change every time Senate Democrats decided to switch their leadership titles around.

But this argument lacks the urgent appeal of the one Paterson made on statewide television on Wednesday. As long as every Democratic senator shows up at the chamber (something that was an issue on Thursday), the Senate will be a functioning body. Ravitch no longer looms as the difference between stalemate and action.

Moreover, Pedro Espada’s return to the Democratic fold should provide the cue the media has been waiting for to dial back its Albany coverage to pre-coup levels. That means that even if Paterson persists in trying to install Ravitch (as he has indicated he will), and even if Ravitch ends up playing a consequential role on a vote her or there, Paterson won’t gain the P.R. boost he’s been looking for. He was looking for a major fight that would play out at the top of every television newscast in the state. But now, Albany news will return to the inside of most newspapers.

Cuomo is the chief beneficiary of Thursday’s developments, because he was able to get the outcome he wanted without expending any political capital. From the minute Paterson began toying with naming a lieutenant governor, Cuomo grasped the potential of such a move to elevate Paterson’s reputation and revive his 2010 prospects.

Cuomo’s 2010 game plan, of course, depends on Paterson being so universally unpopular that the entire Democratic establishment turns on him early next year, so he refused to use the A.G.’s office to back up the Ravitch appointment in court. The risk for Paterson was twofold. For one, he would be on the wrong side of public opinion in a high-profile battle that might not end soon. Just as significantly, with Ravitch poised to break ties in the Democrats’ favor, the party’s base might come to see Cuomo as the chief obstacle to their party’s control of Albany.

Now, there will be no protracted battle over Ravitch’s appointment. Barring another change of heart from Pedro Espada or from another senator, the 32-30 Democratic majority will hold. There will still be plenty of messiness, but the media will soon move on. This is the exact outcome that Cuomo wanted, and he barely lifted a finger.

Paterson had a very good 24 hours between Wednesday and Thursday afternoon—the best day he’s enjoyed since his numbers crashed in January. And, even if it was a coincidence, he stands to earn credit from some voters for ending the Senate crisis with his appointment of Ravitch.

But this is only a fraction of the potential that the Ravitch appointment held for Paterson. On Thursday morning, it looked like he might get 10 great days out of it, with Republicans (and Cuomo) doing everything they could to stop him while the whole state watched. Instead, it looks like Paterson will be settling for one good day.

Any politician who’s had the kind of year Paterson has had will take any good day he can get, of course. But if he’s to have any chance of surviving next year, he’ll need a lot more than that. 

Paterson’s Moment, Diminished