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New York State 2010: Reckoning with the Whirlwind

It must be an axiom of politics—although I can’t cite empirical data for the proposition—that it takes as long to get out of a crisis as it does to get into one By that measure we’re in for a very long haul in New York, perhaps lasting forty years. We have inherited a fiscal whirlwind by giving in to every special interest, tempting policy initiative, and passing whim without regard to a reckoning. But now we’re forced to reckon with it at a time of declining national economic fortunes. Not a pretty picture.

Naturally, then, it is tempting to propose the obligatory five, ten or twenty-five point plans in hopes of immediate results from sweeping reforms. The other commentators to this Roundtable have hit on the correct strategies. They are obvious. By saying that, I don’t mean to disparage the skill it takes to identify them, but rather to stress that coming up with good policy choices is the least of three major challenges facing a Governor. The other two are controlling the expectations of an impatient public, and dealing with self interested politicians who pass upon his programs.

Watching the collapse of the Obama Administration reveals two things about the electorate which may be instructive to the new governor: First, the deeper the problem the more impatient the electorate; second, the public appears to have great difficulty appreciating the value of long term solutions. To this difficult mix, add the current President’s suprising inability to guide the public to either patience or understanding. I believe New Yorkers are more patient, and the Governor-elect more skillful, but the key will be constant interaction with the public to remind us of the ultimate benefits of a modest and long term corrective course focusing on one or two key objectives only.

The other and perhaps more difficult challenge, is dealing with the politicians who have proved over and over that they cannot resist the opportunity to assert personal interest over good policy. Like their colleagues in major American businesses, they seem genetically programmed to seek short term gain at the expense of a long term future. The results to both our economy and political culture have been catastrophic.

Here, the starting point for the Governor-elect is not an elaborate new ethics law which, like any regulation, can be easily circumvented, but to re-incentivize elected officials generally toward the common good. This probably means taking steps to substitute the current party system with a new alignment of interest. If the Governor can find a dozen or so brave souls—undoubtedly with safe seats—to begin the process, he and they might inaugurate a refreshing new political identity, not as Democrats vs. Republicans but as proponents of sound long term solutions vs. quick rag tag fixes.

The challenges are difficult, but the promise is great because this Governor comes to Albany superbly seasoned and thoroughly aware of the problems. He has not squandered the popularity gained at the AG’s office by unrealistic campaign promises or constraining private deals. So, once again, we have reason to believe that the right thing can be done by our leaders, and that the people, by supporting them, can ennoble our beleaguered democracy.

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