A year ago today, David Paterson was sworn in as New York’s so-called “unelected” governor (though last time I checked, he was elected lieutenant governor). After a wearing year and a shocking week, it was a happy day. His sense of humor was a relief, his success through his handicaps was inspiring and amazing, and there was the historical moment of him becoming New York’s first black governor. Even getting his personal skeletons out of the closet right away was a smooth move. He cranked out all the right press releases Schumer-style, he visited everywhere he had to visit, and he sounded the alarm early on the coming economic tsunami before it was fashionable.
The most obvious factor is that he made the mistake of presiding over the government during the worst economic slide since World War II, which is going to bring down anyone’s approval rating to some degree. People like hearing a governor raise alarms about the budget, but tend not to like it when cuts and taxes get discussed. The proposal to tax New York’s wealthiest remains popular, and Paterson has been reluctant to even talk about it, much less back it. The flurry of penny-ante taxes he wanted to impose were of course deeply unpopular. (But come on: did anyone seriously believe half of these proposals were going to make it into law, such as the soda tax for instance? Do we really still not understand how much of what politicians say is hot air that gets fanned away behind closed doors?)
As for the Caroline Kennedy affair, I would imagine Paterson made some powerful enemies with his choice of Gillibrand, but the issue was with how he and his staff managed the process, not so much the choice itself. Paterson’s biggest problem is that has difficulty projecting himself into the role of governor: he shrinks from it one moment, throws his weight around unnecessarily the next, in a kind of conflicted way. The whole strange Senate selection process was Paterson making it all about him and his authority: he was going to do what he wanted, behind closed doors, inscrutably, because he is Governor of New York, dammit. At the same time I think he genuinely wanted to avoid a three-ring circus, but wound up fostering one anyway. Whatever point he was hoping to make was lost in the din.
And as for the talk about Silver really being in charge, this can hardly be comforting, since Silver has always operated under the radar (and prefers it that way) and his thing has always depended on there being an opacity to the structures of power in Albany. A weakened governor does him and his agenda no favors.
Paterson is one of the brightest men to become New York governor in a long while. He seems to be struggling with the role, which is not one he may have the stamina or temperament for (spending so long as a legislator), but not a role he couldn’t have learned, if a truckload of economic manure hadn’t been dumped on him shortly after he started. It is amateur hour, but look how well we fared under professionals like Pataki. For better or worse, he’s going to be governor until January 2011 at least, so it’s in everyone’s interest he and his trusted advisors use their brains and senses of humor and figure it out. Right now he is only adding to the unsettling sensation that nobody in any position of American leadership knows what the hell they’re doing. At least he’s not alone.