The Problem With Paterson’s Cuomo Comparison

David Paterson was right in one of those yeah-but-so-what kind of ways on Thursday, when he told WCBS radio that

David Paterson was right in one of those yeah-but-so-what kind of ways on Thursday, when he told WCBS radio that Andrew Cuomo would be unpopular too if he were the governor right now.

Noting that as attorney general, Cuomo hasn’t had to make politically poisonous budget cuts, the governor said, “You do enough of that and, believe me, you will be unpopular.”

True enough. With the economy reeling and revenues plummeting, governors and mayors around the country have been forced to gut popular programs, slash public benefits, and layoff workers in droves. And voters, whose patience for bad news from their leaders is pretty much non-existent now (again thanks to the economy), are turning on incumbent executives of all shapes, sizes, and party affiliations.

But “unpopular” is a relative term. While virtually every governor and big-city mayor in the country has taken a big hit in his or her political standing, the degree of damage has varied widely.

Paterson, with a 30 percent approval rating and just 15 percent of his fellow Democrats saying they’ll support him over Cuomo in a primary, is at the dire end of the spectrum.

Others aren’t nearly as bad off. Take Connecticut’s Jodi Rell, who is now suffering the lowest approval rating of her five-year tenure: 59 percent. Or New Hampshire’s John Lynch, re-elected with nearly 80 percent of the vote in both 2006 and 2008 but now reduced to a mere 66 percent favorable rating. Michael Bloomberg is in this class, too: His numbers aren’t as good as they’ve been in the past, but he’s still comfortably ahead of his Democratic opponent.

On the radio, Paterson seemed to be arguing that, if the roles were reversed, the White House might today be trying to shove aside Governor Cuomo in favor of Attorney General Paterson. But that’s too simplistic. It’s possible that this would be the case—maybe Cuomo would prove an epic failure as governor—but it’s just as likely that Cuomo would be more like Bloomberg, suffering from reduced-but-non-career-threatening popularity.

Besides the political climate created by the economy and state budget, there are two other explanations for Paterson’s uniquely awful numbers.

One is the fact that he inherited the job, rather than being elected to it. So he’s never built a winning statewide coalition—the kind of base that could have sustained him better when things turned sour. This, obviously, is not his fault.

But the bigger factor—one that Paterson has more control over—is that he long ago lost the public’s confidence in his ability to deliver results and in his basic competence as an executive. He has no signature achievement (unless you count the first-ever direct appointment of a lieutenant governor), nothing that he can point to to calm voters’ anxiety.

This is what has saved Bloomberg, Rell, Lynch and others from the full-force scorn that Paterson is now facing. Before the economy tanked, voters had high confidence in their leadership abilities. Bloomberg, for instance, long ago branded himself as the mayor who brought order and accountability to the city’s schools system—an image his campaign is relentlessly pushing. This doesn’t just help with voters who care about education; it reminds uneasy voters that Bloomberg knows how to run a government.

It’s bad enough that Paterson lacks this kind of confidence-building association. What’s worse is that his most notable actions have been those that have undermined voter confidence.

It’s no accident that his poll numbers, which had been slowly declining for months (like those of many other governors), plummeted to career-killing depths as the Caroline Kennedy Senate debacle played out on the front pages. It’s not that the public cared that much about the Senate appointment; it’s that Paterson projected thorough incompetence—at a time when voters, more than ever, were looking for steady leadership.

Other blunders, like Paterson’s radio appearance last month in which he seemed to link his political troubles to racism or his comment yesterday that he “did not sign up” for being governor when he chose to run for lieutenant governor, have exacerbated this image. If not for this blundering, Paterson’s poll numbers would hardly be great right now; but they might have been good enough (maybe a 40 percent approval rating?) to keep the party from abandoning him for Cuomo, who leads Paterson 61-16 percent in a recent poll.

Similarly, it’s not fair to assume that Cuomo, as governor, would have blundered as badly as Paterson. Because of the economy, he’d probably be unpopular, so in that sense Paterson’s point is taken. But unpopular enough to invite the insurrection that Paterson is now dealing with? It would take more than the economy to bring that about. The Problem With Paterson’s Cuomo Comparison