Something strange is happening in the New York State Senate -- potentially useful, but strange. The long-standing minority Democrats are acting as though they're on the verge of taking over -- by talking like Republicans.
It's not just a pipe dream. Republicans control the Senate with a 33-29 majority. If Democrats win just two additional seats in next year's elections, they will have the majority with Lt. Gov. David A. Paterson providing the edge in the evenly divided chamber. Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith, D-Queens, envisioning a great year for Democrats around the country, thinks his party could win four seats.
Republicans say it won't happen, and with Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer politically weakened, they're not as weak as they were half a year ago. But they have worked against themselves for so long, their task is significantly harder.
To survive in a left-leaning state, they've become political chameleons, adopting the policies and tactics of the Democrats who control the Assembly. They collude with Democrats in closed-door budgeting. They argue to spend more than Spitzer wants instead of trying to cut expenses in a punitively high-tax state. They sign onto massive new state spending programs without public debate. Indeed, they ignore the reason voters would choose Republicans in the first place. Instead of serving as an alternative voice for fed-up New Yorkers, they play dress-up with the other party.
In that context, Smith and his Democrats have a couple of obvious advantages as they prepare for the 2008 elections. One, New York is overwhelmingly Democratic. Despite gerrymandered Senate districts that favor upstate Republicans, New York leans left. Not a single Republican won statewide office in last year's elections.
Two, when voters have to choose between a Democrat and a Republican pretending to be a Democrat, the edge has to go to the real thing, especially in a Democratic state.
Three, while voters are not very happy with either party in Washington, Republicans are suffering more because of the war in Iraq, as well as the incompetence, corruption and bullying that has tainted the party's reputation across large swaths of the electorate. Democrats could fumble their sure-thing yet (as they did in this year's Erie County executive election), but they've got a wide advantage.
Finally, Smith says Senate Democrats are delivering a conservative message, and while a Democrat pretending to be a Republican might not normally fare any better than its inverse, the matter becomes more confused when no one else is acting like a Republican.
So it makes sense -- fiscally as well as politically -- for Smith to hammer away at problems like property taxes and upstate's economic anemia. Senate Republicans have talked about those problems, too, and Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno has a $3.7 billion, 10-point "Upstate Now" job creation and economic growth proposal to back that up, but given their history of spending and prostrating themselves before the unions, voters can't have much faith in their commitment.
Not that Smith and the Democrats would be certain improvement. Politicians like making things easy for themselves, and Smith already has pledged that with a majority, he would continue the state's wretched practice of partisan redistricting, seeking to give Democrats the edge in all their legislative races.
That would counter a promise made by Spitzer, who ran for governor pledging to push for independent redistricting. That is an urgent matter to New Yorkers who understand that when elections are competitive, voters have more influence over their lawmakers. As matters stand today, lawmakers can almost ignore their constituents and still walk to re-election.
Except maybe next year in the Senate, where Republicans have hurt themselves and Democrats are surging. This will be interesting.