Commentary Magazine


The New York Idea, by Mario Cuomo

The Liberal

The New York Idea: An Experiment in Democracy.
by Mario Cuomo.
Crown. 286 pp. $25.00.

For most of this century, New York State has been an incubator of nationally prominent liberal politicians. As liberalism has changed, so have the politicians: Senator Robert F. Kennedy did not have a lot in common with Governor Charles Evans Hughes, although each in his own day was a recognized leader in the “progressive” wing of his party. The latest in this series is Mario Cuomo, governor for twelve years and a national figure for ten. The governor is running for a fourth term, which, if he wins it, will surely be his last; so it is appropriate to consider how the state has fared under his stewardship, and how liberalism has profited from his advocacy.

The New York Idea, the governor’s fifth book, might seem like a good place to look for answers. Unfortunately, the book is a collage, assembled from bits of position papers and old speeches. The former are tedious. The latter are as battered and dented as pieces of furniture that have been through many moves.

Let us, then, do a bit of historical reconstruction instead. Mario Cuomo became governor of New York in 1982, after upsetting New York City mayor Edward Koch in the Democratic primary, and edging Lewis Lehrman, a rich and intelligent Republican, in the general election. But since Koch was widely thought to have beaten himself—Playboy published an interview with him on the eve of the primary in which he spoke of upstate New Yorkers and their “Sears Roebuck suits”—while Lehrman was a businessman with no political experience, Cuomo’s victories in that race did not make him a national figure. That came two years later, with his keynote speech to the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco.

To a party that was about to send forth Walter Mondale to challenge Ronald Reagan at the height of his popularity, Cuomo gave badly needed uplift. The core of his speech was standard Democratic fare: a rhetoric of pity and envy designed to highlight and to rally society’s outcasts (and to make as many people as possible feel that they were among those cast out). But Cuomo’s alternative ideal—of America as a family—was new.

Family values had been a sore spot for the Democratic party since the emergence of social conservatives in the late 70’s. Cuomo appropriated the idea of the family by expanding it to the size of the country. “Republicans,” he said, “believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless . . . the weak are left behind by the side of the trail.” Democrats, by contrast, believe “that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact.”

Cuomo lit his political argument with a glow of moral seriousness. He defined Republicans as Darwinians, who believed in “taking care of the strong and hop[ing] that economic ambition and charity will do the rest,” while Democrats believed that “a government of humans should elevate itself to a higher order” and “would rather have laws written by . . . the man called the ‘world’s most sincere Democrat,’ St. Francis of Assisi, than laws written by Darwin.”

Add to this that the speech was delivered in an urgent, plaintive tenor voice, which maintained the momentum of its phrasing through the witless bursts of applause that derail most convention speakers, and it is easy to see why the Democrats, and the press, labeled it a triumph. Though the Democrats lost the 1984 campaign, Mario Cuomo was a winner.

Cuomo’s record over the next ten years can only be understood when it is put in context—indeed, in several contexts. One was the changed nature of liberalism in New York State. The long reign of the liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller, from 1958 to 1974, had seen a quantum rise in the number of tasks the state government took on, the amount of money it spent, and the taxes it raised. “I like you, Nelson,” Rockefeller’s Republican predecessor, Thomas Dewey, once said, “but I don’t think I can afford you.” The Rockefeller years—both an anticipation and a parallel of the New Frontier and the Great Society—transformed the expectations of state legislators, constituent groups, and local pundits.

Cuomo has done what he could to extend this pattern. Since he took office, state-funded spending has increased by more than twice the rate of inflation. State spending per capita in New York is 47-percent higher than the national average. Throughout the Reagan boom of the mid-80’s, this spending was sustained by tax revenues stimulated by the very policies Cuomo had flailed in San Francisco.

When the Bush recession hit at the end of the decade and revenues declined, the state was obliged to fall back on a variety of financial expedients: raiding dedicated accounts, such as insurance and retirement funds, to cover general-operating expenses; selling state properties to off-budget public authorities; converting short-term debt into long-term bonds.

Lately, this impulse has been modified by the second context within which Cuomo has had to operate: the sense, growing since the mid-70’s, that government had taken on too much. Conservative Republicans, who had believed this all along, embraced the idea of tax revolt at decade’s end, but even some Democrats—called “neoliberals” at the time—briefly spoke of an “age of limits.”

In The New York Idea, Cuomo boasts that he has returned some of the state’s largesse to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts. Another Democrat, Hugh Carey, governor from 1974 to 1982, had begun to whittle away at a top state-income-tax rate of over 15 percent bequeathed by Rockefeller. Under Mario Cuomo, the top rate has sunk to just under 7.9 percent. But what Cuomo does not report in his book is that each of his cuts was made at the insistence of the legislature; he apologized for signing the last one in 1987 by saying that “they would have gotten it anyway.”

In addition, Cuomo has deferred a scheduled cut that was to have taken the top tax rate down still further, to 7 percent, at the same time that he has raised an array of fees and sin taxes. (Not every proposed tax hike has become law: a snack tax, dubbed the “doughnut tax,” died aborning.) Even the steps he has grudgingly taken have earned him the suspicion of what might be called the Village Voice Left. In election years, they hold their noses and back the governor. But in between, they grumble that any tax cut is a sellout.

This brings us to the third context of the last decade: the critique, by George Gilder, Charles Murray, and many others, not just of the price tag of liberal social politics but of the corrosive consequences of the policies themselves, particularly those of the welfare and education bureaucracies. Though Cuomo makes noises from time to time to show that he is aware of this critique, he has engaged it less than the two other contexts with which he has had to deal, perhaps because doing so would require thinking along new lines, rather than juggling budget and tax numbers. As a result, the family of New York seems to be no better off than it would be under the policies of Darwin.

The state’s record in public education is emblematic. New York spends $9,665 per pupil—half again as much as the national average of $6,392. But the SAT scores of New York high-school students have been falling against the national average for twenty years, and New York ranks 45th in its graduation rate.

Cuomo did not create all these trends, but he has not improved them. Meanwhile, he resists any effort to think hard about the problem of diminishing educational returns. His prescription for reform is, the same again, please, only better.

_____________

 

The exhausted, by-the-numbers quality of The New York Idea turns out to be a good, if unwitting, reflection of Cuomo’s accomplishments. He did not invent big government in New York, but while he and the permanent majorities in the state legislature—Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the Assembly—may disagree from time to time on taxes, they are all wedded to big spending and to the benefits that flow therefrom to constituents and to themselves. What he has contributed to this process is the ability to invest it with a gloss of idealism.

In the Diaries of Mario M. Cuomo, a journal of the 1982 campaign and a much better book than The New York Idea, he described an argument with his mother over the death penalty, which he opposes. Mrs. Cuomo disagreed with her son, and she also thought his position would cause him to lose the governor’s race. Finally, he quotes her as saying:

“You don’t have to loosa. You listen to me! You tell thema you changea you mind, you wanna the electric chair. Then, after you win . . .” And here she made an ancient Italian gesture, flicking the bottom of the chin, with two fingers . . . saying in effect, “After the election, to h— with them!”

Mrs. Cuomo was a shrewd woman. But where her son surpassed her in shrewdness was in recognizing the value that New Yorkers place on a certain species of “idealistic” cant.

That value is not infinite, however. Cuomo’s approval ratings are perilously low for an incumbent. True, he may be saved by his enemies. In 1990, the Republicans ran a political novice so incompetent he barely finished in second place. This year, amid much feuding among party kingpins, the GOP picked a candidate hardly better known, albeit much more intelligent. If, as certainly seems possible, Mario Cuomo wins a fourth term, New York can look forward to the same again—only the same.

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