The Cuomo Conundrum

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Lazio, a surer bet to beat than junkyard dog Paladino

By Alan S. Chartock

If you were , who would you rather run against: Rick Lazio, the Republican middle-of-the-roader who is as American as apple pie and Howdy Doody, or his conservative, tea-partyish opponent, Carl Paladino? Cuomo is beating the stuffing out of both of them in the polls. You can be sure that this question is being discussed a lot in the Cuomo organization and between Papa and Junior Cuomo.

Lazio is the old, moderate, New York Republican. The former Long Island Congressman couldn’t be nicer. He’s earned his living, post-Congress, as a corporate senior official. His problem is that he hasn’t earned enough to finance his own campaign, which Republicans need to do these days. If I’m Andrew Cuomo, having raised millions of dollars from the usual suspects, I am very happy about the prospect of running against Lazio. Cuomo must believe that no matter what happens, Lazio won’t raise enough money and will never have the funds to mount a credible campaign. Nor will he have a personality transplant and become mean enough to really come after the Attorney General. And no matter what happens in the Republican primary—even if Lazio wins—Paladino will run on another line. Andrew has got to love that.

Of course, if Paladino wins the primary, Lazio will toe the conservative line and history tells us that you can’t win squat in New York as a Republican unless you have both the Republican and Conservative lines. Andrew must like that a lot.

Cuomo has to assume that Lazio is a sure loser. Paladino is a wild card. He’s meaner than a junkyard dog and he’s spoiling for a fight. While he says that he is not a billionaire, he has enough millions to buy whatever he needs to win. He did what he had to do to collect enough signatures to get on the Republican primary ballot. You have to assume he hired the best and the brightest to get that onerous job done. He told me that he has already spent a measly two of the 10 million dollars he has committed to the campaign.

My thinking is that Paladino, with his incendiary right-wing rhetoric, is banking on the fact that this will be another year like 1994, the year of the so-called “Gingrich Revolution.” The American people will be so frightened by the lagging recession, immigration hysteria, gay marriage hysteria and all the other hysterias, they will slam on the political brakes and yell at the top of their lungs, “Enough!” That, after all, is how Gingrich took over the last time and it’s why Papa Mario lost. That’s how people like Jesse “The Body” Ventura got elected as a long, long shot in Minnesota. In order to get elected governor, Paladino is pushing every button, from the great Mosque debate to his conviction that too many poor people are getting too much from the middle class.

So if you’re Cuomo, you’re probably more afraid of the Paladino candidacy than of the prospect that Lazio will be your opponent. What do you do? Of course you say, “I’m staying out of this,” but in some way, you have to find those mechanisms to help Lazio. It could be simple stuff, like getting your friends on editorial boards to endorse Lazio. For example, look for Cuomo backer and Republican Rupert Murdoch to support the more milquetoast Lazio. That will be a sure sign of what Andrew wants. Or Andrew could start to treat Lazio as if he were the more fearsome potential opponent.

Naturally, Andrew would not want to get caught meddling in the other party’s selection process, so if he did anything, he would have to be circumspect. Surrogates must be enlisted to do the dirty work. Everything will be put under a microscope so each option has to be carefully thought through. Paladino is flogging the Ground Zero Mosque issue just as hard as he can, so even if Andrew does the right thing and announces his support for building it, he’ll do so in the most muted terms.

Hey, is a tough game and the Cuomos cut their eyeteeth on this kind of 3-dimensional chess.

To answer the original question, Cuomo has got to be more for a Lazio candidacy than a Paladino attempt. Indeed, Paladino may self-destruct and become a laughingstock, but it is also possible that the politics of frustration might give him a chance. Remember how scared people get in dire economic times? Read your history and see just how worried FDR was about some of the nuts that were
running against him.

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Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.

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