Over the last few weeks a minor drama broke out within New York’s political left. The Working Families Party, a mix of liberal activists and interest groups that includes labor unions, threatened to run its own candidate for governor against incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican challenger Rob Astorino. On May 29, the New York Times quoted the WFP’s co-chair as saying that, due to Cuomo’s apparently insufficient leftist instincts (yes really), “Unless there is a significant new development in the next 24 hours, I don’t expect the state committee to endorse the governor.”
That development did not come within 24 hours, so the WFP went into its Saturday nominating convention with the threat intact. It didn’t happen even when Cuomo made an appeal Saturday night via video to the convention and live phone call. The leaders of the WFP were clear. “Party leaders had detailed specific language for Mr. Cuomo to use in his video, according to people familiar with the matter, and on at least one topic—increasing the minimum wage—he hadn’t used it,” reported the Wall Street Journal. The Journal notes that Cuomo remembered his lines just in time:
With the clock ticking, Mr. Cuomo spoke by phone to a smaller group backstage, including a top aide to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Emma Wolfe, and WFP members Jonathan Westin, Javier Valdes and Deborah Axt. This time, Mr. Cuomo used the agreed-upon language (concerning giving local authorities the ability to adjust the minimum wage within a formula), according to people familiar with the call.
Why would Cuomo go through all that trouble just to secure his left flank? The answer is that the WFP is more influential, and can make more trouble, than people outside the New York area (most of whom haven’t heard of the party) tend to think. As the Times mentioned in its report, a recent statewide Quinnipiac poll found Cuomo at 57 percent in a one-on-one matchup with Astorino, but sliding to 37 percent with the addition of a WFP candidate on the ballot.
In reality, the high drama wasn’t all that dramatic. Cuomo doesn’t want a challenger to his left because he doesn’t want the narrative of being too conservative, not because he would actually have his reelection spoiled by the WFP. The WFP wanted something similar: they know they can’t cost Cuomo his reelection, but they don’t want the narrative of seeming to cave on principle.
So Cuomo pretended to care about their opinions, and the WFP leadership pretended to believe him.
None of this is particularly surprising, and in fact speaks to the general mood of the left nationwide. The Democrats have, almost without exception, become the party of government. Their agenda is the agenda of the state, and their power is the bureaucracy. This wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, Democrats believed the establishment was essentially conservative–not just the government’s muscular foreign policy but the social mores of the age as well. Even as late as 1980 there was a genuine struggle within the party, leading to Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge to a sitting Democratic president–a turn of events hard to imagine taking place today.
But today’s conformist left takes it one step further. While the Republicans were struggling to free their party from next-in-linism, the Democrats became the party of get-in-linism. Forget truly challenging a sitting president; the Democrats don’t want a primary fight for an open nomination, as evidenced by the emerging Clinton juggernaut. They went from challenging an incumbent president to hesitant to challenge a presumptive nominee.
This is not, by the way, spinelessness. It’s logic. As the Democrats’ policies have become increasingly unpopular, the party’s approach to governance has adjusted accordingly. Rather than compromise on legislation, they have simply empowered unelected bureaucrats and shielded them (not always successfully) from accountability. This has become a vicious circle: if Democrats don’t have to win public approval for their actions, they become less adept at engaging actual arguments, which forces them to turn to ever more executive power grabs.
It also means left-wing activists, such as those at the WFP, have more to gain by getting in line and ensuring Democrats win elections, because the vast expansion of the bureaucracy means there are more spoils to go around. The WFP is not going to defeat Cuomo, but they do need to make an occasional point about their own relevance. Their point has now been made, and they’re back in line. And the party of government rolls on.