09/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will Paterson Go To Work For Obama?

The rumor that Barack Obama wants to appoint David Paterson to a job in his administration is almost as old as Paterson's stint as governor. Since the vaguest part of the story is always the identity of the job (maybe an ambassadorship?) it's safe to assume that the rumor is not springing from any pressing need for Paterson's services in Washington, but rather from the deep desire of many New York Democrats to see him go away.

Strangely, for a man who has spent most of his adult life in the state senate, where politics means everything and policy next to nothing, Paterson's biggest disasters have almost all been political. He botched the selection of Hillary Clinton's successor. His staff wasn't even savvy enough to pick a date for a special election to fill a state assembly seat without creating a crisis. And his decision last week to depict himself as a victim of racism seemed to suggest that Paterson, in his misery, has forgotten even the most basic rules of the way his chosen profession works.

Paterson made his complaints on a radio show hosted by Errol Lewis, a black columnist for the Daily News. His logic seemed to be that since America is not really a post-racial society and he is being unfairly criticized in the media - therefore the media is both biased and engaged in a race-related plot to undermine him. As an example, he picked Dominic Carter of News1, whose sin was bringing up the fact that Paterson had been photographed partying in a nightclub last month.

It's hard to count all the ways this was disastrous but let's mention a few. Carter is black, a veteran city journalist, and the last person anybody would include in a conspiracy to undermine a black elected official. And Carter was right to be critical of the nightclub incident: Paterson should know by now that in times of economic crisis, all sane politicians restrict their photo-ops to situations in which nobody could imagine they were enjoying themselves.

A politician who needs a large number of white votes to get elected to office cannot go around blaming his troubles on racism. If there really is clear bigotry at work, other people can be counted on to point it out. If there isn't, the complainer sounds as if he's playing the race card himself. That's where Paterson is now. Even Errol Lewis, who has often been sympathetic to the governor, wrote a column denouncing him.

There are only three possible explanations for Paterson making these racially charged comments in the first place. The most likely is that he simply was upset about his polls and bad coverage, and spoke without thinking, adding one more huge political error to his growing list.

Another is that Paterson is hoping to rally black New Yorkers, who currently aren't all that enthusiastic about his candidacy for a full term as governor. If he convinced the African-American community he was a victim of bigotry, Paterson could either lose the Democratic primary as a racial martyr, or win it in a multi-candidate race. But it's hard to see any advantages to this scenario. It would almost surely hand the actual job of governor over to a Republican, and leave Paterson a pariah in the world of Democratic politics - the only world he has ever really known.

The other possibility is that Paterson is preparing his supporters - and perhaps himself - for the moment when he bows out, takes that much-speculated-about administration job and leaves the Democratic nomination to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.

The New York Post has reported that the White House was less than thrilled by Paterson's tirade - especially the part where he added the President to the list of potential victims of a bigoted media. But Obama's interest in protecting Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's seat in next year's elections has to be stronger than any pique his staff may be feeling about Paterson's clumsiness. If the White House job rumor was true before, it's hard to imagine the radio interview incident will push it off track.

The only real problem with this scenario is that Paterson has to stay in the governor's office until somebody new takes over. Otherwise, the state senate would almost certainly erupt into another civil war over who gets to succeed him. Even in the unlikely event that the senators agreed on a name, it would very possibly be someone who would happily sell the state to the highest bidder, whether that turned out to be China, or Goldman Sachs or Donald Trump.

It's in the context of the Paterson-gets-a-job theory that last week's court ruling on the appointment of Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor looms so large. Ravitch is exactly the sort of person you could confidently leave in charge of the state for a few months. He's a perfect gubernatorial baby-sitter.

However, an appellate court in Brooklyn held that there is nothing in the state constitution that gives the governor the power to appoint a lieutenant governor, and it did so with such firmness that it seems unlikely the Court of Appeals, which has the final word, will disagree.

That leaves Paterson trapped. If he is willing to trade his dwindling political hopes for an ambassadorship, or some other federal job, he'd have to be willing to drop out of the gubernatorial race and spend six months or so filling out his term before any payoff comes through. That's an awful lot of trust to put in your fellow politicians.