And then there were four.
Four, as in four new senators appointed in the wake of the results of the 2008 elections:
-- Roland Burris, appointed to replace Barack Obama in Illinois;
-- Ted Kaufman, appointed to replace Joe Biden in Delaware;
-- Michael Bennet, appointed to replace Ken Salazar in Colorado; and
-- Kirsten Gillibrand, appointed to replace Hillary Clinton in New York.
We've talked about the winners and losers in the Illinois case for nearly two months. It's hard to make the case that Gov. Rod Blagojevich "hurt" himself in choosing Burris. Actually, it's hard to describe anything Blagojevich has done in ways Earthlings can understand.
But the situation in New York became a soap opera of its own. And while Blago is not long for this world -- or at least not long for his office in Springfield -- New York Gov. David Paterson is another story.
The last time a Paterson looked this bad was in September of 1962, when heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson was knocked out in the first round by challenger Sonny Liston.
Paterson himself is an accidental governor; he won the job when his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, resigned last March following his involvement with a prostitute. Spitzer had spent much of his 15 months in office battling the Republicans who ran the state Senate. Paterson's relationship with the GOP, and other lawmakers, has been much calmer, cordial and conciliatory.
But the opportunity presented to him to name a Senate appointment turned into a circus, much of it the governor's own making. We all knew about the Hillary-to-Foggy Bottom plan shortly after the election. It was made official on Dec. 1. But here it was, in late January, and he was still having prospective Democrats jump through hoops.
No one suffered more than Caroline Kennedy. After a near lifetime of avoiding the limelight, Kennedy signaled in 2008 that she wanted a more public role: a key endorsement of Obama, a leading role on his vice presidential vetting team, a prominent speech at the Democratic convention, and vigorous campaigning on Obama's behalf in the fall. But her bid to be the next senator from New York was trouble from the outset. After she told the governor of her willingness to serve in the Senate, Paterson suggested she tour upstate so voters could get to learn more about her. The tour -- modeled after Hillary Clinton's "listening tour" in 1999, when the first lady decided she was a New Yorker -- was an embarrassment. Kennedy never seemed to know what to say or how to say it, and the notoriously combative New York media were not about to cut her any slack.
Kennedy clearly had her weaknesses, but she also had her strengths. Had Paterson made a decision by the end of the year -- even if it had been Caroline -- it would have prevented the process from deteriorating the way it had. But Paterson insisted he didn't have a favorite in the race, and thus encouraged other Democrats -- state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo (who led in the meaningless polls), Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, American Federation of Teachers Prez Randi Weingarten, and at least five members of Congress -- to make their case as well.
Last week, when Kennedy alerted Paterson that she wanted out, a slew of rumors and innuendo followed. She had nanny problems. Tax woes. Even worse stuff came out in the blogosphere. And a lot of it was attributed to people close to Paterson.
So, with Kennedy gone, Paterson picked Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand. The choice wasn't a shocker; for the record, it had been my prediction from the beginning. But the announcement itself was a bizarro, Blagojevich-like freak show. For all the mocking of Kennedy's speech patterns, Paterson had trouble conveying a coherent sentence. It almost seemed like a Saturday Night Live parody. Among the politicians standing next to Paterson on the platform was former GOP Sen. Al D'Amato, now a big-deal lobbyist close to Gillibrand. With Gillibrand armed with a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association, did they need to have a high-profile Republican like D'Amato up on the platform? (He was conveniently standing on the opposite side of Paterson from Chuck Schumer, who unseated D'Amato in '98.) It was almost like the bar scene from Star Wars.
Gillibrand's selection was lauded by many groups, including those favoring abortion rights and gay rights organizations. But the gun stuff was too much for some Democrats, notably Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island Democrat who came to national politics following the murder of her husband by a deranged gunman in 1993. McCarthy is threatening a primary challenge in 2010, if no one else runs.
It's too soon to say that Gillibrand was the wrong choice. For Democrats who are comparing her to Charlton Heston, that's a bit over the top. You don't run as a Brady Bill poster child in upstate New York, in a solidly Republican district, and expect to win.
And remember what happened to Charlie Goodell. The Republican congressman from western New York was a moderate conservative during his near decade in the House in the 1950s and '60s. But when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller picked him to replace the murdered Bobby Kennedy in the Senate in 1968, he moved well to the left, knowing he would have to run statewide. The tactic didn't work for Goodell. But I suspect that Gillibrand will go out of her way to soften her image on the gun issue. Whether or not that holds off other Democrats from taking her on next year is something else.
And I'm not sure Caroline Kennedy would have been the wrong choice either. If Paterson had picked her right away, New York would have had a new star in the Senate, a Kennedy no less, and everyone would have been happy. Or he could have chosen Cuomo, or anyone else on the list. The point was not who but when. To allow it to go on for as long as it did not only hurt the Democrats' cause but opened Paterson up to serious questions -- and the possibility of a primary challenge in 2010, from Cuomo or someone else.
The New York Daily News' Kenneth Lovett paints a pretty ominous picture in his story today, under a header suggesting that Paterson's political future is "on life support":
Democrats are increasingly pessimistic about Gov. Paterson's political survival.
Paterson's handling of the U.S. Senate appointment has even his allies critical of the governor - and fearful that erosion in public confidence in him could impact efforts next year by Democrats to keep their tenuous control over the state Senate as well as the controller's office.
His continued travels around the world have further raised eyebrows -- especially his decision to go to ski-mecca Davos, Switzerland, this week for an economic conference -- when he's calling for $1.7 billion in budget cuts, some by Feb. 1.
"If the guy doesn't want to be considered an accidental governor, he should stop acting like one," said a Democratic lawmaker. "He doesn't command respect. A lot of people believe he won't be around past next year."
The ultimate insult, I suspect, is the question raised by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd on Sunday: She couldn't decide who was "wackier," Blagojevich or Paterson.
Paterson's five weeks of dithering let the jealous vindictiveness of the Clintons and friends -- still fuming over Caroline's endorsement of Obama and Teddy's blocking Hillary from a leading health care role in the Senate -- poison the air. With his usual sense of entitlement and aggrievement, Bill Clinton of Arkansas did not want Caroline Kennedy of New York to have the seat that Hillary Clinton of Illinois held.
Paterson wasn't thinking of New York, only of how an upstate ally who was a woman would bolster his own chances for re-election. We can only hope that an avenging Andrew Cuomo takes him out in a primary. ...
Chuck Schumer embraced Gillibrand because at long last he can be the best-known senator from New York, something that would have been impossible with Kennedy.
The governor who began his accidental tenure, thanks to Client 9, by confessing his infidelities and drug use had so little class that he trashed Kennedy while letting her hang out to dry, then let aides trash her even after she dropped out.
Kennedy friends said that, as Caroline was pulling out for family reasons, the governor made a crude attempt to control the spin -- a childish "You can't quit, I'm firing you" power play.