Although Barack Obama is the president of the United States, it's often easy to forget he is also the national leader of the Democratic Party, with his stubbornly bipartisan strategy on almost every policy issue. Not so yesterday. I was in New York, and the front pages of the Times, Daily News, and New York Post all screamed the news that Obama has sent word asking flailing Gov. David Paterson not to run for re-election. This should be a no-brainer; the unelected Paterson's approval ratings are as low as George W. Bush's, while his Democratic rival Andrew Cuomo has rebounded from some youthful political indiscretions to become a popular, crusading attorney general, in the mold of a pre-scandal Spitzer.
Paterson's refusal to cede the office, though, allows for the re-emergence on the national scene of Rudy Giuliani, who remains popular among upstate conservatives and suburban moderates. Giuliani has shown a real facility for exploiting conservative populist moments like the one we're in right now, with the grass-roots revolt against Obama's health plan and the racial animus bubbling over throughout the country. As New York City mayor, his approach to crime, police violence, and public hiring alienated the black community.
Equally important from the White House's perspective, Giuliani could energize Republican voters, increase turnout, and help down-ticket races, leading to New York Democrats losing their weak hold over the state Senate. Why is dysfunctional Albany of interest to Obama? Because it controls the congressional redistricting process, and the administration, looking ahead to even its second-term policy priorities, does not want to lose a single Democratic House seat. That's why the White House was so enraged when Paterson named Kirstin Gillibrand to Hillary Clinton's old Senate seat; it removed Gillibrand from a swing district House seat she could have safely held. And that's why, during campaign season, Team Obama sent 15 paid organizers to Texas -- not to win the state's electoral votes but to help the state Democratic Party flip the legislature, which would've given Democrats more House seats in 2010. (It didn't happen, but you can't say they didn't try.)
The key administration player on the New York story is White House Director of the Office of Political Affairs Patrick Gaspard, a former New York union operative and veteran of the David Dinkins and Jesse Jackson campaigns. Gaspard has Karl Rove's old job. And there's no love lost between Gaspard's former employer, the SEIU 1199 Health Care Workers East, and Gov. Paterson. The union has marched against Paterson's proposed $3.5 billion in health-care budget cuts, even as he opposed raising taxes on the super-rich.
Gaspard has a history of interfering in Albany politics on behalf of Obama, such as during the brief, hostile Republican takeover of the state Senate in June. PolitickerNY writer Jason Horowitz reported that Al Sharpton has told members of the Obama administration, "It’s hard for me to march against you if I ever get mad, because you’ve got our best organizer." Sharpton was referring to Gaspard.