The Cuomo Conundrum
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is seen before he presents his 2013–14 Executive Budget address on Tuesday, Januar. 22, 2013, in Albany, New York. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Oddly, for a governor whose home state sits at the vortex of both global media and financial capital, New York’s Andrew Cuomo appears to be preparing his bid for the presidency quietly. Since his election in 2010, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary and state attorney general—who is ten years younger than Hillary Clinton and fifteen younger than Joe Biden—has demonstrated a remarkable ability not only to get the legendarily dysfunctional New York State Legislature to work effectively, but to earn simultaneous credit from liberals, centrists and conservatives for doing so. Immediately following Cuomo’s shepherding of the state’s tough new gun control laws, his approval rating dropped from a stratospheric 74 percent to a still-pretty-damn-good 59 percent (falling to 55 percent most recently, but with a mere 27 percent expressing disapproval). And he managed, as Capital New York columnist Blake Zeff noted, to spin the story as if “he was merely paying a price for his bold heroism.”
Speaking to a room full of civic-minded business leaders recently at the law firm of Covington & Burling, the governor projected a winning combination of idealism, hardheaded political realism and charming self-effacement. “Change is hard,” he said. “You know… ‘Eat less and you will lose weight.’ Yeah, I get it. But that eating less is a problem.”
Cuomo’s politics elude easy labeling. An admiring profile in The New Republic claims that he “has been leading the charge of American liberals for over two years now,” and Cuomo himself has called New York “a community based on progressive principles.” He has also boldly stated his pride in New York as what he calls the “progressive capital of the nation.”
Cuomo’s progressive portfolio includes not only the post-Newtown gun control measures, but also 2011’s thrilling gay-marriage legalization. He has been at the forefront of strengthening abortion rights, bucking the national tide and introducing legislation that would guarantee women the right to late-term abortions when their health is threatened or the fetus is deemed unviable. He plans a ten-part Women’s Equality Act that would include equal pay and anti-discrimination provisions. And he has won praise from progressives for his role in producing a package of laws tied to the effects of global warming, after having overseen the state’s (considerable, if inadequate) efforts to recover from Hurricane Sandy. Cuomo is also trying, with mixed but potentially meaningful success, to reduce the impact of New York’s draconian drug laws on young people, especially minorities, who become caught up in the criminal justice system owing to small amounts of marijuana, and also appears to have engineered a last-minute rise in the state’s minimum wage.
Regarding taxation, however, Cuomo’s political profile has displayed a decidedly different side. It’s as if the personality of this self-proclaimed leader of the “progressive community” had been exorcised in favor of the soul brother to Grover Norquist. Not for nothing did Cuomo earned the epithet “bulldog for the rich” from New York Times local reporter Michael Powell. Lauded by The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page for his “ruptures with Democratic orthodoxy,” and saluted as a “soul mate” by New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, Cuomo is also admired by National Review pundit Michael Tanner, who touted New York’s “tax-cutting, budget-slashing, fiscally conservative governor” in a piece headlined “Cuomo the Conservative.” Tanner joyfully noted that “Cuomo didn’t just rule out tax increases, he actually called for tax cuts. Already he has pushed through the State Senate a bill establishing one of the nation’s strongest caps on property taxes.” (Cuomo’s 2011 bill, which limits the annual growth of local property taxes that fund public schools to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, is currently the subject of a lawsuit by the state’s teachers union.) In addition, Cuomo announced a freeze on salaries for state workers and forced the expiration of the state’s “millionaire’s tax.”
But it is not only taxes where Cuomo’s economic agenda has proven in sync with current conservative thinking (if that is not too generous a term for what Romney, Ryan and company have wrought). While his budget has increased health care and education spending, Cuomo has also assumed a surprisingly hard line in favor of penalizing New York City schools for failing to meet a deadline to come up with an evaluation system, demanding $260 million in education cuts despite a judge’s ruling that such cuts needed to be delayed until the legal process could play out. (The legislature’s top Democrat, Sheldon Silver, was once again put in the position of having to fight his state party’s leader for what had hitherto been considered a bedrock Democratic priority.)
Most disturbing perhaps, and revealing as well since almost no one was paying attention, was Cuomo’s decision to zero out of the state’s budget all funds for state’s defunding of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program. According to Ginia Bellafante’s New York Times report, the program “trained volunteers to give children a voice in legal proceedings, and crucially to provide a holistic picture of the children’s lives that would help judges make more informed decisions about the cases.” Cuomo is planning to cut out all of its $800,000 in state financing for next year, thereby crippling the staff of just two administrators and a small team of social workers (with 120 volunteers) who managed, somehow, to serve roughly 1,500 children during last year alone. This despite the fact that, as Bellafante notes, “according to a 2009 study by the advocacy group, Children’s Rights, New York ranks fortieth among states in how quickly it returns children home and forty-fourth in terms of adoption.” (The Cuomo official with whom I spoke was unaware of this story when I raised it and offered to look into it and respond, which did not take place.)
As the son of Mario Cuomo, the famously introspective and inspirational former New York governor, Andrew Cuomo is frequently asked what qualities he shares with his unapologetically liberal father. Alas, he picked perhaps the worst possible way to claim his father’s mantle. Quizzed about what was then an outright refusal to reconsider his opposition to the millionaire’s tax despite the support it enjoyed from the State Legislature’s union-supported representatives, as well as its black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian caucuses, the governor replied, “The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much,” then cited his father’s lonely opposition to the death penalty despite the strong majority support it enjoyed in the state at the time. “Reporters would say, ‘Well, people want it,’” Cuomo added. “And the point was, you know, we don’t elect—you can’t just have as a governor a big poll-taking machine, right?” The equation of cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires with saving the lives of prisoners on death row is a decidedly odd analogy for a politician deemed to be “leading the charge of American liberals.”
The acronym that one hears applied to Cuomo’s political philosophy is SPEC (“socially progressive economic conservative”). Another pundit terms him a “progractionary,” defined as a “hard progressive on social issues like gay marriage…but [championing] an austerity message on spending and taxes that fits in well with House Republicans.” Infelicitous as these terms may be, one wonders if either of them is fated to replace “New Deal liberal” as the guiding star of successful politicians from the center-left.
Pragmatically speaking, these positions make sense. Liberals are winning the culture wars, and demographic trends portend only increasingly easier victories when it comes to issues that appeal to young voters, women, college graduates and people of color. It’s an irony of American politics that it has become safer for many politicians to advocate gay marriage, a generous immigration policy and a woman’s right to choose—as divisive as these issues may remain at Thanksgiving dinner—than to try to address traditional bread-and-butter issues of economic equity.
Cultural liberalism is not only popular, it is also cheap. And it does not stir the kind of wealthy campaign contributions to adversaries that can draw well-funded opponents into the race, in a primary or a general election. Cuomo calls himself a “progressive who’s broke,” but this conveniently ignores the explosion of wealth that New York’s richest citizens have enjoyed in recent decades, particularly during his administration. (Since 2009, the year before his election, the wealthiest 1 percent of US citizens have secured for themselves 93 percent of all economic gains.) The contrast with previous progressive champions, particularly those from deep-blue New York, could hardly be starker.