The Cuomo Conundrum
Take, for instance, Mario Cuomo. It was the elder Cuomo, after all, who played the key role in rejuvenating the language and the politics of New Deal liberalism in the Reagan era. His words still managed to revive the progressive vision languishing at the time, beneath Reagan’s two landslide electoral victories and endless episodes of intra-liberal bloodletting. Cuomo’s simultaneously erudite and eloquent orations succeeded in honoring (New Left) cultural difference as they embraced the (old left) ethic of team work and economic opportunity for all: a “patch-quilt” nation working together, rather than the “melting pot” of old. Most moving, politically and emotionally, was his 1984 Democratic National Convention keynote address, still engraved in the memory of millions who watched it on TV or heard it on the radio. In that speech, as in many others, Cuomo argued for a liberal philosophy built on a foundation of “family, mutuality, the sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings.” True, few political lives demonstrate the adage that Cuomo himself coined—politicians “campaign in poetry” but “govern in prose”—more than Cuomo’s own, as his policies were often more conservative than his rhetoric. (New York liberals’ gallows humor at the time included the observation that his administration’s most significant jobs program was prison construction.) Even so, under the first Cuomo administration, the state made a strong commitment to such unfashionable causes as increasing unemployment benefits, exempting low-income workers from the tax rolls, building housing for the homeless, helping seniors pay for prescription medicine and aggressively enforcing the state’s environmental laws. Cuomo also paid close attention to civil liberties when appointing judges and drafting legislation. But if Mario Cuomo represented the pinnacle and perhaps the last gasp of New Deal liberalism, Andrew Cuomo may well turn out to be its undertaker.
Cuomo had justified his hard-line opposition to taxing the wealthy with the argument that New York cannot remain economically competitive if its wealthy residents are asked to pay higher taxes than they would elsewhere. Though he did support President Obama’s call for higher taxes on the wealthy at the federal level—as a top administration official was quick to point out when I raised the issue—Cuomo repeatedly demanded that if taxes were to be raised, this should only be done at a federal, rather than state level. In the course of our discussion of the issue, I pointed out that wealthy people on Wall Street and elsewhere in the state have never had it so good: stock market prices and corporate profits are at their highest points ever recorded, while virtually every serious study of the issue demonstrates that “tax flight” by the wealthy is a myth propagated by anti-tax ideologues. (Indeed, state revenue almost invariably increases when levies at the top are raised, while inspiring little if any so-called migration of the wealthy to neighboring states.) To this, Cuomo’s aide replied that this was simply a philosophical disagreement, and we would have to leave it at that. I asked if the aide could point me to any research that might support the administration’s “philosophy.” None was forthcoming.
What was forthcoming, in secret, however, turned out to be a shocker. Literally on the day the print version of this article went to press, Cuomo, according to press reports, reversed himself on the issue, and helped engineer an extension of what he had previously insisted had been a temporary higher tax bracket for seven-figure incomes in order to fund a cut for middle-income earners. The tax had been set to expire at the end of 2014 (which happens to be an election year). Cuomo had made no mention whatever of extending the tax in his January “State of the State” message, nor did either he or any of his aides bring it up as they travelled around the state to win support for their proposals. (And I heard no hints about it during my back and forth with his aides.) The New York state Democratic Party went so far as to commit itself to a television campaign trumpeting the lack of new taxes of any kind in his budget.
If we rule out the possibility that Cuomo so feared being portrayed as a economic conservative in a lengthy Nation article and so reversed himself on what had been a defining foundational aspect of his administration in order to mess with its author, then one can only conclude that the combination of the ongoing budgetary crisis, Washington’s sequestration melodrama, and the actual fact of the explosion of inequality in New York forced him to reverse himself in plenty of time to remake his image for both the 2014 and the 2016 elections. The surprise factor, moreover, had the effect of catching potential opponents off-guard, which has always been Cuomo’s modus operandi.
The last minute reversal notwithstanding, politically as well as philosophically, the younger Cuomo is a hybrid species, one that pundits have trouble identifying. Cuomo may believe his results speak for themselves, and for many voters, no doubt they do. But the distance Cuomo has created from the party that nominated him—and whose presidential nomination he is expected to seek—is hardly a matter of mere efficiency. It’s also been one of choice—his choice. At the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Cuomo literally brought his own party to the party: he set up a tent outside the convention hall and held his own independent event. He avoided questions from the media scrum and refused to take positions on the party platform—or anything else, for that matter—that might compromise the image of fierce independence he had so assiduously cultivated.
Inside Albany, Cuomo has proven a near miracle of legislative effectiveness. (He likes to point out that he is on track to pass Albany’s third consecutive on-time budget, which hasn’t happened in nearly thirty years—and yes, that includes the three terms served by the previous Governor Cuomo, in case anyone’s interested.) He has done so, however, by downgrading the power of his fellow Democrats in the Legislature and elevating members of the Republican minority to the status of an operational majority in the service of his agenda. Cuomo approved gerrymandering schemes that preserved State Senate seats for right-wing—even Tea Party—Republicans. He then conspired with a group of ideologically flexible members from both parties to turn over the leadership to this ad hoc team—despite the fact that the GOP’s advantages in drawing up the districts did not result in a Republican majority. The net effect has been to create a shifting set of legislators who become relevant to the process only when they engage with an issue on the governor’s terms, regardless of party.
As with the almost overnight reversal on taxing the wealthy, Cuomo’s preferred method in these situations is to sit tight and let public pressure build, then strike fast before the opposition has time to organize. “Some bills, if you don’t pass them quickly,” he explained to the business leaders at Covington & Burling, “you don’t pass them at all.” That’s how he got the gun laws passed in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings: by springing a bill on the Legislature and then deploying his executive powers to suspend a constitutionally mandated three-day waiting period and demand an immediate up-or-down vote. A second tactic was on display in the marriage equality vote, when Cuomo leaned on top-dollar Republican donors to promise contributions to GOP representatives nervous about whether their votes would inspire a far-right primary challenge. To good-government liberals who point out that this is hardly the manner in which democracy was intended to operate, Cuomo scoffs that if “I get 100 percent for transparency, I get zero for results.”
Cuomo also makes no apologies for his aggressive fundraising or lack of disclosure. “I think everybody who’s now in office basically lives within the system,” he told a reporter following his Covington & Burling speech, referring to New York State’s lax campaign finance regulations. “Our point is we want to change the system [because] living with the rules, from my point of view, is very unpleasant.”