Empire Falls?

Though Hillary Clinton never made it to the White House, this should be a good moment for Democrats in the Empire State. The Democrats appear to have a lock on Congress, thanks in no small part to Chuck Schumer, the state's senior senator. President Obama's cabinet is full of New Yorkers, and his first budget promises to be much friendlier to New York than any we've seen during the long era of Republican dominance. So why is it that New York Democrats seem to be in such terrible shape?

Governor David Paterson's job approval ratings are at historic lows. Mayor Michaael Bloomberg, a Democrat turned Republican turned independent who is now angling for Republican Party backing, looks all but unbeatable in his race for reelection. And there is a good chance that Republican Jim Tedisco, who now serves as Minority Leader in the State Assembly, will defeat the relative political novice Scott Murphy in New York's 20th congressional district, formerly held by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

To some extent, this Democratic weakness is an illusion, product of the party's extraordinary success. Gillibrand, for example, ran to the right in her traditionally Republican district. She might be best known for having secured the support of the NRA, a red flag for at least some downstate liberals. That she won the 20th in 2006 is a testament to her political prowess. That she won in 2008 by a much larger margin reflects her personal appeal and the rise in anti-war climate nationwide. If Tedisco loses the seat, Republicans are in bad shape.*

Paterson, meanwhile, is an accidental governor who is running into the heaviest political headwinds imaginable. After running as a small-government conservative, Governor George Pataki managed to win reelection twice by tilting sharply to the left, and winning the endorsement of some of the state's largest and most powerful public sector unions. He didn't win their support through charisma alone. Rather, he agreed to generous wage increases, particularly for healthcare workers, a crucial constituency. Governor Spitzer's extraordinary popularity gave him a brief window during which to reboot the state's finances, but his approval ratings started to plummet even before the Emperor's Club episode. Only a Rooseveltian political virtuoso could have turned these lemons into lemonade, and Paterson, for all his virtues (and he does have them, including a wry sense of humor), is certainly not that.

Paterson has, however, made a sweeping effort to keep the state government afloat that has involved going after a number of politically sacrosanct targets, including the state education budget. Whether or not he lasts beyond this term, one wonders if his effort to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, which imposed harsh mandatory sentences on drug offenders and thus launched a massive expansion in the number of incarcerated New Yorkers, is best seen as part of a broader effort to put the state on a sustainable fiscal course.

Because the Democratic brand remains very strong in New York, it is easy to imagine Andrew Cuomo challenging Paterson in a Democratic primary and winning the nomination and the general election in a landslide. Jason Horowitz reports that Cuomo's political team is (ahem) giving this option serious consideration.

You have to wonder if Paterson regrets not having named Cuomo to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat.

As Horowitz suggests, one major stumbling block for Cuomo is that he'd be taking on an African American Democrat, a move that many voters, not just African American voters, would see as a slap in the face. That might create an opportunity for the right Republican candidate, which is why we keep hearing rumors about a Giuliani candidacy, or a run by endangered Long Island Congressman Peter King.

Then there's the mayoral race in New York city, which is in some sense the most puzzling failure for New York Democrats. Given the city's outsized role in powering the national party's renaissance, you'd think the local Democratic party would have a deeper bench. A number of promising candidates, like outgoing Councilmember David Yassky, a Schumer protégé who is now running for Comptroller, have run into a familiar problem: having built their profiles on a national stage, they've proven unable to navigate the ethnic and class divides that define the city's politics.

The same isn't true of another Schumer protégé, Anthony Weiner, who has carefully crafted an identity as an outer-borough populist, a white ethnic candidate who gets New York's dozens of highly distinctive Asian and Latino communities. After a scrappy primary bid in 2005, Weiner should be well-positioned to give Bloomberg a tough race, assuming he can defeat City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who recently made a mark with a smart plan for saving the MTA. As Bloomberg's approval ratings continue to decline, the city's political establishment could be in for a surprise.

*Correction: This item originally stated that Gillibrand first won the 20th in 2004, which is incorrect.

Presented by

Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at Economics 21, a columnist for The Daily, and a blogger for National Review Online.

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