By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, September 12, 1986
That old friend of political analysts — Conventional Wisdom — is always nice to have around, as a reminder of the perils of punditry.
In the Republican Senate primary of 1980, Conventional Wisdom decreed that the presiding supervisor of the Town of Hempstead in Nassau County, Alfonse M. D’Amato, had no chance against the four-term incumbent, Jacob J. Javits.
Now, six years later, with D’Amato the GOP incumbent, Conventional Wisdom has announced that the Democratic primary winner, Mark Green, doesn’t stand a chance of unseating him in the general election on Nov. 4.
Occasionally, Conventional Wisdom turns out not to be wrong, so it would be foolhardy for any political thumbsucker to be so brash as to challenge head-on the old fellow’s credibility. I just bring it up as a mild cautionary note.
Everybody says (Everybody is another name for Conventional Wisdom) that Green beat John Dyson in the party contest on Tuesday because committed liberals dominate Democratic primaries in this state, particularly in New York City and most particularly when the turnout is very light, as it was this week. The wider electorate, the one that votes in November, is seen as less liberal, especially upstate.
All this certainly has truth in it, but a few contrary thoughts might be pondered by those not quite ready to embrace Conventional Wisdom.
First, Green beat Dyson’s $6-million, television-blitz campaign with a modest $750,000, television-silent effort.
Second, the top of the Republican ticket, the candidate for governor, Andrew O’Rourke, has so far been close to invisible, which could translate into turnout slippage for other Republican candidates. Enrolled Democrats outnumber enrolled Republicans, 3.8-million to 2.6-million. D’Amato is counting on crossovers by a significant number of Democrats. He is also clearly trying to distance himself from the O’Rourke campaign.
The very popular Gov. Mario Cuomo, who tacitly, though not publicly, supported Dyson in the primary, says now that he will energetically get behind the winner Green. We don’t know what this means yet, but if Cuomo is seriously considering a race for the presidency in 1988, he will want to sparkle in his own state first by drawing more votes for governor than D’Amato does for senator. If this means he will be generous to Green both with his coattails and with his formidable ability to raise money and pull out the vote on Nov. 4, it could make a real difference in Green’s chances.
At a press conference on Wednesday, an optimistic and calculating D’Amato sought to isolate Green as “an ultraliberal who represents the left wing of his party.” Green returned the insult at his own press conference by calling D’Amato on elf “the far-right zealots of the Senate.”
D’Amato sought to portray himself as a mainstream politician — “the people’s senator” — who was going to take the statesman-like high ground in this contest. Anyone who remembers his vicious kidney punches in his 1980 race against the late Sen. Javits will naturally reserve some skepticism that this posture could just possibly be temporary.
“Obviously,” D’Amato said, seeking to erase our memory, “Mr. Green is going to wage a negative campaign.”
By this I assume he was expressing his justified belief that Green will seek to ventilate and attack D’Amato’s record.
There is much to chew on in that record, for D’Amato has conducted himself in the Senate as the consummate fulfiller of favors — for constituents, for the defense industry, for the bankers and brokers and bond sellers of Wall Street. His $9-million campaign treasury is a reflection in part of the gratitude of those who have benefitted from his service as chairman of the securities subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee and also the subcommittee on defense of the Appropriations Committee.
On the one hand, D’Amato has cultivated visibility by lobbying for particular New York City projects in Congress, but at the same time he was voted for Reagan administration budget cuts that have badly wounded many city services.
It might therefore have puzzled some voters to see Mayor Edward Koch unofficially endorsing D’Amato two days ago. He called him “a superb senator” and said he “could never endorse” Green because “I don’t happen to agree with Mark Green’s philosophy.”
The mayor, a conservative Democrat, has endorsed liberal Democrats before, so it is not unlikely that some very personal pique — a trait Koch has frequently confessed to — led the mayor to this contrariness. If Koch really desires a United States Senate that will further — or at least defend — the interests of this and other cities, his anointment of D’Amato must be regarded as a perverse act.
But it should also be recalled that the mayor’s endorsement have often not brought comfort to the recipients — John Dyson and Bess Myers, to name but two of the losers who has his blessing.
Thus, we have much to discover in the two months ahead, though it is not until Nov. 4 that we will learn whether the winner this time is our venerable icon, Conventional Wisdom, or instead the rival cliche, Anything Can Happen.