Step aside, Rand Paul, Christine O'Donnell, and Sharron Angle, you've been outdone. If you thought that questioning the Civil Rights Act, inventing imaginary human-mouse hybrids, or threatening the federal government with "Second Amendment remedies" would win—if not elected office—at least an unofficial award as the craziest major-party candidate of this election cycle, I'm sorry. New York gubernatorial Republican nominee Carl Paladino just raised the bar to a whole new, and qualitatively different, level with his Wednesday-night shouting match with New York Post reporter Fred Dicker.
The interaction, caught on video, shows Paladino waving his finger in Dicker's face, alleging that Dicker sent "goons" (Paladino's term for Post photographers) after his illegitimate daughter, and vaguely threatening Dicker with retaliation. (Dicker denies that photographers were sent at his direction.) What triggered this outburst from Paladino? Dicker asked what evidence Paladino had for his allegation that his opponent, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, had cheated on his ex-wife. Paladino provided no evidence, but he did get very angry at Dicker.
Normally when we say a candidate did something "crazy" we mean that he or she said something factually false or extremist in the view it expresses, as in the examples from O'Donnell, Paul, and Angle. But such comments are merely at the thin end of the bell curve of candidate statements. While they may raise questions about a candidate's knowledgeability or policy judgment, they do not imply that the person is crazy in the colloquial sense of mentally ill or disturbed. Paul's suspicion of the Civil Rights Act, while odious to the overwhelming majority of nonracist Americans, is simply an extension of his extreme right-wing views on the proper role of the federal government. Those views may not make him a good senator, but they don't make him someone you would cross the street to avoid. The same goes for O'Donnell's curious claims about scientific experimentation, which are just a stark example of the ignorant antiscientific blather that one hears regularly from the religious right. The only comment that comes even close to Paladino's behavior is Angle's reference to taking up arms against the government. While troubling, that also is, alas, just an expression of the conservative attitude toward the federal government that has cropped up periodically since at least the Civil War.
Paladino, on the other hand, is not making an ideological point. He is not, like Paul, making a gaffe in the Michael Kinsley sense of accidentally admitting what he really believes. He is not acting politically crazy; he is just acting plain old crazy. Let's review the ways:
—Making an unfounded accusation against his opponent: It is generally considered inappropriate to accuse your opponent of seriously immoral behavior without any evidence. Doing so when you yourself have committed the same sin is particularly odd.
—Getting hysterically angry at a reporter: In general, getting too worked up in front of the cameras is a bad idea and being unable to stop yourself from doing that suggests emotional issues, not ideological extremism.
—Picking a fight with sympathetic media: If there is one thing that Tea Party candidates have generally mastered, it is cooperating with their supporters at FOX News and right-wing talk radio. The New York Post, a right-leaning, Rupert Murdoch–owned paper was Paladino's best hope for getting sympathetic coverage in the New York press. Not anymore.
New York 1 asked Paladino whether this incident would not bolster Democratic claims that he lacks the temperament to lead a state. Paladino's response? That he will "take out" the establishment that is spreading this message. Well, question answered, albeit indirectly.
In the same NY1 interview, Paladino alleges Dicker "works in secrecy" with New York–state politicians and that Cuomo has accepted "bribes." This, like Paladino's prior accusations and threats against Dicker, also connotes instability rather than extremist views. To be sure, Paladino has those views as well: he wants to ban all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest. But Paladino's outbursts, including his previous attacks on New York–state Republicans you would think he'd want to cultivate, such as former Sen. Al D'Amato, have no ideological explanation: they are just angry and vituperative for their own sake. (Also, like Paladino's accusations of infidelity against Cuomo, they have a creepy element of projection: it is Paladino, after all, not Cuomo, who has showered New York politicians with campaign donations and won millions of dollars in real-estate deals from the state government in return.)
All of this begs the question as to what motivates Paladino, and what motivates the people who chose him as the Republican nominee. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed Paladino only 6 points down, although polling expert Nate Silver considers it to be an outlier and rates Paladino's chances of winning at 2 percent. (The Village Voice's Wayne Barrett noted that Quinnipiac has an unimpressive history with its polls on New York politics.)
The Voice's Tom Robbins argued, before this incident, that Paladino's madness is all an act. (Paladino had already exhibited plenty of curious behavior, from forwarding racist e-mails to making outlandish promises regarding budget cuts to pledging to use a baseball bat to bully his political foes in Albany.) It would be slightly reassuring to think that Paladino is not really as unbalanced as he appears. But the fact that so many voters seem to find his behavior appealing—in the state that produced moderate Republican icons such as Teddy Roosevelt, Jacob Javits, and Nelson Rockefeller no less—is evidence that whether or not Paladino is truly crazy, an awful lot of voters are.