A very special episode brought to you by Andrew Cuomo
With Carl Paladino on pace to lose the gubernatorial race by somewhere between 30 and 40 points, it's tempting to conclude that Democrats could have nominated anyone—no matter how polarizing or otherwise flawed—and still held on to the governorship. One usually smart analyst even suggested, seriously, that Eliot Spitzer could have done the trick, had he stayed in office rather than resigning in 2008.
And sure, presuming that it ever would have been possible for Spitzer not only to stick around but to draw Paladino as a general-election opponent, Spitzer would be the clear favorite, simply because Paladino's erratic behavior is too alarming to too many voters. The problem is that, had he stayed, Spitzer almost certainly wouldn't be running against Paladino. Instead, his opponent would probably have been Rudy Giuliani. And in that race—especially in a political climate like this year's—the smart money would have to be on Rudy.
Here, it's worth recalling the very specific set of circumstances that allowed Paladino to snag the G.O.P. nomination. It started with Spitzer's March '08 departure, which brought David Paterson to the governorship—and guaranteed that Andrew Cuomo would spend the next two years looking for a way to elbow Paterson aside.
For Republicans, the Paterson-Cuomo drama had enormous significance. As his screw-ups mounted and his poll numbers declined, it became clear that Paterson would be ripe for defeat in the 2010 general election. But Cuomo was a different matter. Like Spitzer before him, he'd milked the attorney general's office for all of its P.R. worth, amassing imposing poll numbers. Giuliani, it became clear, was very interested in running against Paterson—and not at all interested in running against Cuomo. When it became obvious that Cuomo would supplant Paterson as the Democratic nominee, Giuliani backed down.
THE ABSENCE OF GIULIANI, THE ONLY BRAND-NAME Republican in New York other than George Pataki, and the emergence of Cuomo as the Democratic candidate, created the talent vacuum on the G.O.P. side that Paladino was able to exploit. The prospect of near-certain defeat hindered the party establishment's ability to recruit a credible candidate. To grab the nomination, all Paladino had to do was knock off the low-wattage Rick Lazio, a political scavenger who spent all year getting blown out by Cuomo in polls. In the September 14 primary, G.O.P. voters essentially shrugged and said, "What the heck?" while checking off Paladino's name.
This is not how things would have played out if Spitzer had stuck around. First, don't forget that he had already suffered serious political damage before the prostitution scandal emerged. In December 2007, the end of his first (and only) full year in office, Spitzer's approval rating was measured at just 36 percent, with more than half of voters saying they'd rather vote for someone else in the next gubernatorial race. It's hard to see how this number would have improved much, even without the scandal, with an economic collapse and brutal recession on the horizon. It would have been unfair to blame Spitzer for any of that (he was one of the few major politicians, after all, who was willing to target Wall Street before the bailouts), but voters would have held him responsible anyway.
It is conceivable that the public would mostly have gotten over Spitzer's personal transgressions if he hadn't resigned, much as Louisianans seem to have gotten over David Vitter's hooker scandal, and just like Americans got over Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. But even if they had, he'd still be staring at an approval rating of about 40 percent today—and facing a political climate in which New York's swing voters, who mostly shunned the G.O.P. in the Gingrich/Bush era, are suddenly receptive to Republican candidates.
In this wounded condition, Spitzer would have been in danger of an intraparty coup by Cuomo. But let's say he was just strong enough to keep the A.G. at bay. All that would have done is hasten Giuliani's entry into the race. In Spitzer, Giuliani would have seen the same inviting target that he saw in Paterson. And with Giuliani running, there would have been no vacuum for Paladino to seize. (Yes, some very odd Tea Party-backed candidates have toppled some pretty big Republicans in primaries this year, but Giuliani probably wouldn't have been a Tea Party target.) And as the G.O.P. nominee against a governor with shaky poll numbers in a very anti-Democratic political climate, Giuliani would have been well-positioned to win.
In a way, this all illustrates the degree to which Carl Paladino is a creation of Andrew Cuomo. The A.G.'s poll numbers were (and still are) high enough to keep the G.O.P. establishment from mounting a real fight for the governorship; the mission was so obviously doomed from the outset, that it was impossible for party leaders to attract candidates and generate excitement among activists. A Cuomo-Giuliani race would have been a real fight, but once the former mayor was out, it was hard for G.O.P. leaders to even pretend that they had a shot. This is what made Paladino's Sept. 14 triumph possible.
Paladino, of course, has made Cuomo's life easy this fall. Except for a few days immediately after the primary, when it briefly seemed that Paladino's unfocused rage might have broader appeal than anyone had expected, there has been no doubt that the Democrat is on his way to a thorough landslide. Which has enabled him to run a non-campaign campaign, one that hasn't forced him to say or do anything that threatens the artificially high popularity he's accumulated as A.G. This is the same game Spitzer got to play four years ago, when the G.O.P. laid down for him because of the extraordinary numbers he'd racked up as A.G.
In other words, Cuomo should enjoy this Paladino thing while he can, because it's a special circumstance created by the extrardinary political strength he accumulated as a crowd-pleasing, badguy-slaying attorney general. It won't last.