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The Seinfeld Race

Carl McCall, the Dems' default choice, would be quite happy with a gubernatorial primary that's about nothing. Andrew Cuomo needs it to be about something. He has three weeks.

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Butting heads: McCall and Cuomo in a rare tete-a-tete.  

The one quality a political candidate needs more than any other, I've persuaded myself over the years, is a rationale. Yes, a candidate needs other things -- a sunny biography with a narrative arc of having triumphed over some adversity, charisma, and pots of money. But the chief questions a candidate has to answer have to do with rationale. Why you? Why here? Why now?

Rationale does not mean merely, say, a set of proposals. Instead, it's the meta-category: It's about who the person is, and why he or she fits the office and the moment. Ronald Reagan had one, as did Bill Clinton. Here in New York, Rudy Giuliani had one in 1993; Chuck Schumer had one in 1998. Hillary Clinton did not at first, but she developed one over time as she gradually persuaded a large majority of voters to forget about her as an icon and think of her as a worker, which she has been.

Rationale wins. Sometimes the candidate with more money, or better ads, or the prettier face, loses. But virtually always, the candidate with the better rationale comes out on top.

But now we come to this year's Democratic primary for governor, and my rule is on the verge of being exploded. Andrew Cuomo has -- and the fact that I'm sorely tempted to say had indicates the shape he seems to be in right now -- a better rationale than Carl McCall. Back in the spring, I asked each for his rationale. Cuomo went on for 40 minutes -- and when he gets going, duck. He called me back twice over the course of that Saturday afternoon, saying, "And here's another thing I was thinking . . . " State government could do this, it should do that. His speech patterns -- up, down, quiet, loud, fast, slow -- had the prowling energy of a caged tiger. McCall, by contrast, sounded like a grazing sheep. He gave me some boilerplate on how his experience makes him the right person for the job, leaving rather vague what, exactly, he considered "the job" to consist of.

Yet recently, a fairly solid consensus has developed among insiders that McCall will probably win this primary. That's a big change from three months ago, when many assumed that the tiger would somehow find a way to overwhelm the sheep. Everything could change back. Primary Day is three weeks away. The race really hasn't been engaged yet, and the Cuomo people believe that when (if?) voters start paying attention, they'll see the distinction that struck me when I spoke with both candidates. But as I canvassed insiders last week, all of whom saw McCall winning a still-close contest, and as I spoke to both campaigns, noting the nervousness in the voices of the Cuomo people and the comparative sanguinity in camp McCall, it began to occur to me: Maybe there are times when voters don't want a rationale.

The standard interpretation of Cuomo's difficulties is that he's been shooting himself in the foot. People always hark back to the infamous "coat holder" comment, in which he derided George Pataki's role in responding to the attacks last September, or the way Cuomo bolted from the Democratic state convention at the last minute. Then there's the whole too-aggressive, too-ambitious, young-fellow-in-a-hurry thing. There's something to all these points, but there's more to the story.

Cuomo's trouble stems from the fact that he's attempting to do two things at once. He is seeking to introduce himself to voters, most of whom know only that he's Mario's son and had some job with Clinton. At the same time, he wants to familiarize voters with an idea about state government.

"The problem is that state government is not really relevant to most voters," says political consultant Norman Adler, who, I should note, has had his ups and downs with the Cuomos (a condition that scarcely makes him unique). "It doesn't deliver services like the city, and it doesn't make foreign policy and set broad economic policy like the federal government. Andrew is trying to say to people, 'These are the things the state could do, and even though you don't know it, you'd be better off.' He's trying to educate voters, but Rule No. 1 is, you can't educate voters during a campaign. It adds an additional step in there."

Well said. Even so, there are times, of course, when voters are open to that message. But it just doesn't look as if now is one of those times. This may be a product of 9/11; that is, the old civic boat has been rocked enough in the past year, and people aren't in the mood for more. But paradoxically, one could argue the precise opposite, that the terror attacks and these exasperating rebuilding melodramas aside, things don't really seem so bad right now (except in the stock market, which the governor has nothing to do with anyway). "People choose a governor whose style fits their mood," says consultant Philip Friedman. "Andrew is defining himself as an aggressive progressive. The problem for him is that many New Yorkers seem more comfortable with a selective progressive, a description that fits McCall better than it does Cuomo, and fits Pataki best of all."

The awkwardness of trying to introduce voters simultaneously to himself and to an idea, and ending up doing neither, was on display in a commercial the Cuomo team aired in response to an attack McCall made on both Andrew and Mario at a press conference ("If you were out in the street, in a battle, and you were kind of losing, you might run home for Dad"). Andrew, pairing that remark with a dismissive one Charlie Rangel made months ago about his wife, Kerry Kennedy, spoke solemnly to the camera about how scurrilous these attacks on his kinship were and how proud he was of the mishpocheh. The spot was unfairly called an attack ad. It was more like a counterattack ad. But . . . huh? How many voters even knew about those remarks? Suppose that was the first Cuomo ad you saw. Would you have any idea what he was talking about? Why is this man telling me this?

Hence, McCall's edge. He's fortunate to be the echt organization man in a year when being the organization man is in. He is the default choice for Democrats. He hasn't been an inspiring candidate by any means, but he has sharpened his rhetoric since the spring. His campaign has been efficient, on-message, and more or less mistake-free. He hit a moderately bad patch last week, with a Post story proving, apparently, that he never lived in public housing, as he had claimed. But the story faded after a day, and anyway, I read the story as actually being a sign of McCall's strength. I'm guessing here that the Post may have gotten some of its info from the Republican state committee, and if the Republicans are leaking stuff on McCall, not Cuomo, then that would seem to mean that they are more worried about McCall.

Another sign: When insiders talk about this race, the conversations don't usually dwell on ideas, or issues, or the candidates' styles, or controversies, of which there have been far fewer than predicted (although this, too, will probably change). They tend to devolve to demographics. Will McCall get 75 or 95 percent of the black vote? Who'll get the Jewish vote? Where will the Latinos go? I'll leave it to the newspapers to break all that down for you. But the very fact that the conversation is taking place on these mechanical terms favors McCall.

Why? Because Cuomo needs the race to be about something. He wins if he can subdue his more abrasive side and conjure an engaged electorate that listens to these ideas that explode out of him like lava and decides that he might be right about state government after all. McCall, who is much more the known quantity to his party's faithful, will be perfectly happy if the primary continues to be about not much of anything. Because in a race like that, resume can trump rationale.

Back in the spring, the McCall supporters' standard argument was that Andrew was jumping line, that this should be "Carl's turn." One understands the racial-pride aspects of that claim, which resonate with Democratic-primary voters especially. But the assertion also distorts priorities in a way: The point of elections is to win them; making history is wonderful, but it's secondary, and rewarding seniority is a very distant third. But unless Cuomo shows a discipline in the next three weeks that he hasn't demonstrated yet, it's starting to look like Carl's turn it will be.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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