Race still a problem in our politics

On a slow Sunday just before Barack Obama was slated to show up in New York’s Capital District amid great fanfare, the word came out of the White House that it was time for Governor David Paterson, with his dismal polling numbers, to step aside in favor of a more popular Democrat, probably Andrew Cuomo. This is not the first time the president has micro-managed politics in New York. The last case was when he sent out word that he didn’t want a primary against Kirsten Gillibrand for the United States Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton.

There was a good deal of speculation that he was carrying Chuck Schumer’s baggage on that one. After all, Schumer is immensely important in getting the president’s legislative agenda, including health care and Wall Street oversight, through the United States Senate.

In the case of Paterson it is all quite simple. If Paterson remains at his present low polling numbers, the hopeful, invigorated Republicans, smelling blood, will show up in huge numbers and the dispirited Democrats will stay home. Paterson will lose to a Republican — practically any Republican — and all the patronage and jobs that go with the governor’s office will be lost. Not only that, all those other politicians who are running, “down ticket,” meaning congressional seats which are vital to the president’s success with his programs, will lose. This is all terrible news for David Paterson, a very good man who unfortunately succeeded to his job during a time of great fiscal distress.

As if that wasn’t enough, he was ridiculed by the meanies at Saturday Night Live who made fun of his blindness and maybe, of his color, with their insulting portrayal of him as a stupid bumbler. It’s the kind of disparaging racism perpetrated by the old minstrel shows in the late 19th and early 20th century. No matter, the damage is done to a good man and his numbers show no signs of changing.

To preserve his numbers in the House and Senate, Obama now steps in and tells the governor not to seek re-election, not unlike Shogun in the novel of the same name when he told his son that he was inconvenient and to commit suicide. How would you react if you were in his shoes? So far, he has continued to say, “Get lost” to the president. There is nothing else he can do. It is just too early. If, a la Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman, he says that he will not be a candidate too early, he hobbles himself and becomes a lame duck. But obviously, the die is cast.

Meanwhile, the specter of race comes into all of this. Team Obama has gone out of its way to portray this as a post-racial period in America. It is a beautiful and brilliant strategy. It shows the president as the head man for all Americans and mitigates the whole “first black president” thing in the minds of white voters. Of course, race still plays a part in our politics and David Paterson has correctly said so. According to printed reports, the White House didn’t like that either and let Paterson know of their displeasure when he announced that he was a victim of race baiting.

The problem is that people like powerful African-American leaders Congressman Charlie Rangel and the Rev. Al Sharpton have made it known early on that they would not be happy if Paterson is primaried. Now Obama’s intervention gives Andrew Cuomo cover to run in a primary, which I predict he will do if he has to. After all, he is a Cuomo.

Paterson may just figure that he can tough it out, draw a weak Republican and win. But it is all too risky for Obama who will clearly be there for Andrew Cuomo if he runs, just as he would have been there for Kirsten Gillibrand had she had an opponent. Do the ends justify the means for the Democrats? In the Gillibrand case, it turns out that they have a fairly weak Senate candidate but in blue state New York, the voters are unlikely to help make the Senate Republican. If the Republicans can find themselves a Bloomberg or a Dick Parsons to run, Gillibrand might well lose. But that’s a big, unlikely “if.” It’s all getting mighty interesting as we come down to the wire.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 9/25/09

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