NEW YORK —Having long been one of the proud tough guys of New York politics, Andrew Cuomo, the state's attorney general, finds himself with a Republican opponent in this year's governor's race who makes him look like St. Francis of Assisi.
To call Carl Paladino brash and a loudmouth understates the case. The New York Daily News has taken to referring to the Republican nominee as "Crazy Carl," and his latest series of outbursts demonstrated why.
Appearing before a group of orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn on Sunday, Paladino declared that he didn't want children "brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option—it isn't."
Then, in trying on the "Today" show on Monday to make things better, he made them worse. He spoke of how "disgusting" he had found a gay pride march he had seen, in which marchers "wear these little Speedos and they grind against each other."
The venerable tabloid Daily News couldn't resist the headline: "Carl Rages Against Guys in Speedos, Gay Grinding."
American politics has come to this?
Step back for a moment and contemplate this strange political year. We are emerging from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and we could be using this year's political debate to clarify the choices we face. Instead, we have simple fury against "big government" and taxes with little discussion about how much government we want, or how we are going to pay for it—and candidates talking about Speedos and witches. This is the year in which we seem to be defining our democracy down.
As for Paladino, he tried again Tuesday to get out of the mess created by his gay comments, asking "for forgiveness on my poorly chosen words." But his latest sally was only part of a long series of self-inflicted tribulations. They include a Godfather-like threat he made to a reporter—"I'll take you out, buddy"—and a series of racist and sexually graphic private e-mails that became public.
The odd thing is that were Paladino a trifle more restrained and less eager to pick dumb fights, his "I'm mad as hell" approach could have found traction, particularly upstate. The cities, towns and villages dotted across that part of New York have been ailing economically for two decades, in some cases more.
Upstate's economic troubles allowed Democrats Chuck Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton to make deep inroads into formerly Republican territory in their respective successful runs for the U.S. Senate in 1998 and 2000. With the region's voters still facing economic travail and high property taxes, Paladino could have become their tribune this time.
Instead, even Republican politicians are fleeing him. Kemp Hannon, a veteran state senator from Long Island, declined to endorse Paladino in a debate earlier this month. At the time, Hannon recalls, he said that "I shared his goals of cutting taxes, cutting expenses and getting jobs ... but we'll see where he goes."
Where Paladino has gone since has only made Hannon more wary of embracing him. "Not only has he offended people," Hannon said, "but he's addressed issues that are not on the top of people's minds." Cuomo, in the meantime, has built a formidable list of Republican supporters, including Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, whose GOP campaign in a special congressional election last year was torpedoed by dissident conservatives.
Cuomo, the son of a former governor, might seem the ultimate insider. But both Andrew and his father Mario have a habit of looking at the world from the outside in, and Andrew has been running as an outsider with enough inside knowledge to change a dysfunctional state government. He has also produced piles of plans and proposals. The main critique of his thick policy book is that it looks weightier than it is because it has wide margins—a very mild riposte by the standards of this year's campaign.
Assemblywoman RoAnn Destito, a Democrat who represents the upstate cities of Utica and Rome, can reel off a long list of issues of concern to her region from the property tax to the need for "value-added manufacturing" to investments in transportation—all in the context of a disastrous state fiscal situation.
Paladino has made it all but impossible to discuss such matters, but he has done one useful thing in demonstrating that there are limits to how far anger alone can take you, and to how much wackiness even a fed-up electorate will tolerate.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of, most recently, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right.