All that was missing was a bottle of absinthe. But for that, the spectacle of Monday night’s debate among contenders for the governorship of New York would have made for a scene straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec. Everything else was there: cads, thugs, grotesques and strumpets, with Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate, possibly even doubling for a dwarf.
Pity the poor people of New York: Can there ever have been a state so rich, so abundantly endowed with talent and enterprise, to have had a political choice so abject, so meager, so embarrassing? Had we beamed this debate into the cafes of Baghdad, or the hubble-bubble joints of Kabul and Kandahar, all notions of enlightened America exporting democracy to the benighted of the earth would have evaporated forthwith.
What a collection of cultural types, what a political bestiary: There were hacks (Andrew Cuomo of the Democrats); goons (Carl Paladino); fringe-dwellers ( Howie Hawkins of the Greens); earnest losers ( Warren Redlich of the Libertarians); race-centric poseurs (Charles Barron, the ex-Black Panther, of the Freedom Party); garish attention-seekers ( Kristin Davis of the Anti-Prohibition party, a former madam, alleged to have supplied Eliot Spitzer with company) and outright eccentrics (Jimmy McMillan, of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, who provided the best, the most rollicking entertainment of the night; in fact, he gave the distinct impression of being Too Damn High himself).
This was not a debate in the conventional sense: There were too many talking heads competing for airtime for a back-and-forth between candidates to have been feasible. Instead, they answered questions for 90 minutes—dealing directly with the moderators and questioners in the audience, and not with each other. As such, it was a series of 90-second vignettes—vignettes that quickly grew dull over time.
• Election Oracle: Predictions for the Hottest Races• 10 Midterm SurprisesThere can be no question that after this debate, Paladino is over: finito. He was fidgety, furrow-faced, almost entirely unsmiling, and largely inarticulate. The Republican Party’s candidate, it is remarkable to relate, even sounded less impressive at times than Ms. Davis the ex-madam, who uttered the zinger of the evening. Describing what would happen if the state didn’t reduce its burdens on entrepreneurship, she said, “Businesses will leave the state quicker than Carl Paladino at a gay bar.” (Later, in addressing a question on the Metropolitan Transport Authority, she said, “The difference between the MTA and my escort service is that I kept just one set of books and delivered reliable and on-time service.”)
Paladino showed flashes of his feistiness, flashes of his persona as the no-nonsense paisan: “We’re going to dismember the New York state education department.” None of that wussy dismantling, or abolition: dismemberment. This was Carl Paladino as Paulie Walnuts. But the format, in which the spotlight was not always exclusively on him, did not play to his narcissistic strengths. Only toward the end did Paladino warm up sufficiently to be caustic (as opposed to merely grouchy) in his speech—something for which he has a genuine gift. But for those who have doubted that he has the temperament, the class, and the judgment, to be governor, he said nothing to inspire any grudging confidence.
There can be no question that after this debate, Paladino is over: finito.
Cuomo was prepped and predictable, with not a phrase out of place, not a phrase that surprised. The most exciting thing he said all night was this short, emphatic quip: “I’ve actually shrunk government.” He said it with a self-satisfied look, a look of triumph, as if awaiting applause from the audience. Honeys, I shrunk the government.
There is no question that Cuomo will waltz away with the job on November 2. He may not inspire warmth or elation; in fact, the sight and sound of him is vaguely depressing, and deflating. But he demonstrated tonight that he is not incompetent. A political plodder he may be, but a likely nightmare he is not.
Poor, poor New York.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)