»  Taki's Magazine

October 6th, 2010

  The Race for New York

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The oh-my-god political news story of recent weeks in this neck of the woods was a September 22 poll showing Carl Paladino just six points behind Andrew Cuomo among likely voters in the New York governor's race.

Cuomo, the Democrat, is a lifetime professional pol, as his father had been before him: Mario Cuomo served three terms as Governor of New York, 1983-1994. Neither father nor son has ever done anything but politics, unless you count a bit of perfunctory lawyering.

Paladino, the Republican candidate, is a businessman from Buffalo. In the September 14 Republican primary he beat Rick Lazio, the candidate endorsed by the state GOP (and also by the state Conservative Party). After Rand Paul's win in Kentucky, Joe Miller's defeat of Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, and Christine O'Donnell's triumph over Mike Castle in Delaware, this was one more finger poked into the eye of establishment Republicanism in this year's primaries. Like those other candidates, Paladino has Tea Party endorsement.

In a very Democratic state, against a famous and popular Democratic name, Paladino's six-point gap was sensational. It thrilled those of us who'd been admiring Paladino's bumptious style — his promising to "go to Albany [the state capital] and take out the trash," and to "kick open the door [of the state legislature], throw in a hand grenade, and machine-gun the survivors." What wasn't to like?

Oh! ever thus, from childhood's hour,
      I've seen my fondest hopes decay;
I never lov'd a tree or flow'r
      But 'twas the first to fade away.

So with Carl. The latest poll I've seen has him now 24 points behind Cuomo. What happened?

Basically, Carl Paladino happened. He rather particularly happened last Wednesday in an unsightly dust-up with state affairs reporter Fred Dicker of the New York Post. Paladino claimed that Dicker had dispatched photographers to get pictures of his (illegitimate) daughter at the house where she lives. If Dicker did that again, Paladino warned, "I'll take you out." The candidate came across in the widely-circulated video clip as nasty, crude, and slightly unhinged. Jokes about horse's heads and concrete boots were passed around.

On October 4 Paladino showed up on Bill O'Reilly's TV show, presumably to repair some of the damage. It was a poor performance. His body language and demeanor were all wrong — adding up to a sort of wary apologetic crouch. It doesn't help that he looks like Bob Newhart. The New York Post had denied sending anyone to the house of Paladino's love child, said O'Reilly. They did so send someone, replied Carl: a reporter named Amber, and a photographer. He could not supply Amber's last name, though. Paladino pleaded his lack of experience. "I'm new to this. It's the first time I've run for office."

Watching that O'Reilly interview, I found myself thinking:  The guy has no "game."

For those not clued into the latest self-help fads, "game" is the art of picking up women, as preached by über-PUA (that's pickup-artist) Erik von Markovik and most famously promoted by the blogger who calls himself Roissy in DC. By studying "game" — stand like this, show this attitude, respond to this with this, and so on — a maladroit young male can turn himself into a master PUA.

The parallels between politics and seduction have been well aired. A politician needs "game" to capture and hold the attention of voters — not exactly the same "game" as that employed by bar-hoppers like von Markovik and Roissy, but not really all that different, either. As with PUAs, it helps to start from a position of unillusioned mild contempt towards the target. Also as with PUAs, cool confidence is half the battle — "They can smell fear," says Roissy. And also as with that other "game," a wrong word or gesture or a momentary drop of the mask can be fatal to the enterprise.

A lifetime professional pol like Cuomo of course has "game" coming out of his nose-holes. He would never make such an elementary blunder as not knowing the last name of a reporter he'd had a controversial engagement with. Heck, Cuomo probably knows the first and last names of all the reporters in New York State, and their birthdays too.

These amateur politicians that have come up this election season — the Sharron Angles and Rand Pauls, Christine O'Donnells and Carl Paladinos — are what the "game" community calls "betas" — clumsy, clueless, unschooled in the essential arts. That they have done as well as they have is testimony to how thoroughly fed up the U.S. electorate is with the professional politicians who have been doing to us for years, metaphorically, what the PUA seeks to do, literally, to the object of his practiced stratagems.

That Cuomo can run rings around Paladino, as he is now doing, is counter-testimony that the smooth-talking arts have not lost all their power, and that the clunky, mis-stepping beta is still a romantic turn-off for voters. Do we really want citizen pols? Or shall we — in fact, should we — prefer the deft professionals?

A legislature of ordinary citizens sounds like a great idea. We summon up vague recollections of Cincinnatus, the Founding Fathers, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Who knows our concerns better than one of us — a middle-class worker bee with a non-political job, a mortgage, and kids in public schools? Or, closer to the actual Cincinnatus (and Paladino) model, a prosperous farmer or businessman, hitherto un-political, who is willing to forgo the getting of wealth for a while — willing, in fact, to spend some of his wealth — in the public interest.

The problem is, of course, that government is now a tremendous apparatus whose mechanisms take years to understand and master. On-the-job training is out of the question, certainly for legislators riding a two-year electoral cycle. You need to get started up that learning curve in your teens, or at latest during your college years, driven by an early interest in, and inclination for, political work.

Visiting London to take a legal examination, the young David Lloyd George couldn't resist peeping in at the House of Commons (which was not in session): "I eyed the Assembly in a spirit similar to that in which William the Conqueror eyed England on his visit to Edward the Confessor, as the region of his future domain." Lloyd George was 18. Nine years later he was a Member of Parliament; 26 years further on, he was Prime Minister.

Is politics a job, or a duty? If it's a job, the person likely to do it best will, as with any other job, be the one whose interest was caught by it at an early age, who never wanted to do much else, and who worked hard on his "game" so that he might fulfill his ambitions. If it's a duty, let's do away with these tiresome elections and draw our legislators and executives by lottery. All we have to lose is the thrill of seduction.