Rarely have New Yorkers seen the kind of political pressure now being used to persuade a sitting governor not to run again -- and to say so, now. Not only is that pressure coming from a state Democratic Party establishment concerned that Gov. David A. Paterson's plummeting popularity will cost them the statehouse next year, it's coming from a White House concerned not only about the governorship but about the party's hold on Senate and House seats.
Paterson has been adamant about running again, despite the numbers. But the cold shoulder he got this week from President Obama, before a slightly more diplomatic nudge from former President Bill Clinton, says a lot about the rough road confronting the governor. Dealing like this usually is handled quietly; what we're seeing now is raw politics.
Obama may be pushing for what's in the best interests of his party. But that's not necessarily in the best interests of New York State.
The state is enmeshed in a budgetary disaster complete with ballooning deficits, falling revenues and the lack of the political will to confront fiscal realities. The last thing it needs right now is 15 months of a lame-duck governor.
Paterson, for all his failures to take the hard steps he says are necessary, is at least talking about those steps. His is one of the few, perhaps the only, significant voice in Albany raised in warning about some really politically unpopular facts. He had the power to cut the budget and didn't, but he also knows where the special interest roadblocks are, and if he lacks either the power or the allies to confront them he at least calls them out before caving in.
As a lame duck, even that voice would be ignored. The state's dysfunctional Legislature would be more than likely to simply go turtle, pulling in its collective head to see whether the recession will blow over before any real cuts in spending or payroll must be made. That's not speculation -- its leaders in both Democrat-controlled houses, far more fond of spending money than they are of belt-tightening, have said as much.
For the Democrats, of course, an early decision by the governor to bow out would accelerate a 2010 election season that already has seen one Republican candidate, Rick Lazio, throw his hat in the ring while other GOP "stars" still are in the talk stages. That would give a very strong Democratic Party candidate -- Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo -- the chance to build a campaign and a ticket and momentum going into the next election cycle even before the current one is completed.
What has been holding Cuomo back, in the opinion of many observers, is diplomacy and Paterson's occupancy of that post. Beyond the idea of challenging an incumbent of his own party, there's the delicate question of support within a minority community that didn't appreciate Cuomo's opposition to H. Carl McCall in an earlier race. But with Obama's visit -- and all the praise he heaped upon Cuomo -- that calculus now may have changed.
Also factoring into this equation is a court's confirmation of a lieutenant governor appointment -- giving New York another non-elected back-up governor should Paterson take a face-saving federal appointment -- and the consistent hammering Paterson has been taking as competing polling institutions measure the governors' popularity repeatedly and frequently.
All of this is costing the governor, who still is in office and still has a chance to cut state spending and the state work force. But his political capital is small and shrinking, his attempts at policy statements are drowning in media inquiries about his political plans and the Legislature doesn't see much of an executive hammer hanging over its head.
This is not good for taxpayers, who can't afford business as usual. The circus that overran the Senate chambers this summer now threatens to engulf the governor's mansion this fall. The business of New York State, the crucial business of New York State, is pushed back out of the spotlight.
But it only gets worse if the state faces long months, and an entire new budget cycle, with a lame-duck governor. New York being New York, though, politics may once again trump policy. We'd like to be optimistic, but we're not.