Just a few days before Andrew Cuomo’s victory over Zephyr Teachout in New York’s gubernatorial primary, a video of Cuomo at the Labor Day parade made the rounds. It neatly summed up the New York populist left’s relationship with Cuomo: he doesn’t acknowledge they exist.
Here’s the video, originally posted on the New York True website:
Teachout attempts for about a minute to get Cuomo’s attention to say hello to him. She is repeatedly boxed out by Cuomo’s handlers and he doesn’t appear to even notice her, despite her proximity. Eventually, she is crowded out when someone Cuomo does recognize, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, approaches. Although it’s doubtful Cuomo saw and ignored Teachout (unless I missed it), the forced smile pasted on his face and the complete lack of awareness of Teachout made for a pretty accurate description of how Cuomo feels about the Occupy left.
Cuomo won the primary by nearly thirty percent, but Teachout got 34 percent herself, the best primary challenge to a sitting New York governor on record. That left commentators with a kind of strange story to tell: a primary that wasn’t close but was closer than it should have been. It wasn’t a near-upset, but the publicity and support generated by the Teachout campaign (the New York Times even declined to endorse in the primary) were indicative of something not quite significant but not easily ignored either.
In a smart column for the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson tries to tease out the conflict:
Cuomo’s estrangement of Democratic liberals wasn’t due to any social conservatism on his part. In his first term as governor, Cuomo pushed through a same-sex marriage bill and tighter gun-control legislation. But his resistance to some key economic imperatives, allowing New York City to set a minimum-wage rate higher than the state’s and keeping a heightened tax rate on the income of the state’s wealthiest residents (that is, Wall Street bankers), and his unwillingness to campaign for Democratic control of the state Senate, which would boost the prospects for such legislation, angered many of his fellow Democrats. They believed Cuomo was cultivating Wall Street support for a possible presidential bid, an ambition that stood athwart their efforts to mitigate New York’s skyscraper-high inequality.
Cuomo’s vulnerability on economic issues was compounded by his vulnerability on ethical ones. Confronted with the spectacle of a steady stream of legislators moving from Albany to prison after convictions for corrupt practices, Cuomo convened an ethics commission to investigate and reform New York’s business of politics. Earlier this year, however, he disbanded it with its mission unaccomplished — a decision that prompted a federal prosecutor to announce that he was looking into Cuomo’s abrupt change of heart.
This strikes me as exactly right. So it’s worth playing this scenario out a bit. Meyerson compares the liberal angst bubbling up into Teachout’s campaign to that of Elizabeth Warren. The comparison is imperfect, but apt in one way: Warren would only run for president, presumably, if Hillary Clinton isn’t in the race. Clinton is running as a Wall Street Democrat through and through, and there does not appear to be real appetite on the left to take her on.
That’s because at the national level, Democrats are far more interested in winning. The only real friction between Clinton and the left so far, as Ben Domenech points out in this month’s COMMENTARY, concerned Clinton’s career-long opposition to gay marriage, until the polls shifted enough for her to flip flop. At the national level, social issues, and culture-war issues more broadly, get top billing from Democrats.
As Meyerson notes, that’s not true at the state level in New York. Democrats there care about social issues, but in a deep blue state those issues are not nearly so controversial. It’s how Cuomo could tell pro-life New Yorkers that they “have no place in the state of New York because that’s not who New Yorkers are” and still expect to win reelection. Liberals may appreciate Cuomo’s social liberalism (and his mildly totalitarian anger-management issues), but he’s not exactly going out on a limb.
And that’s why Cuomo would essentially have to decide between being a true-blue Democratic governor of New York or being a viable national figure. Since Cuomo has hopes of at least keeping the door to a presidential run open, he’s chosen to be a national Democrat. This has the advantage of not requiring him to have principles, and it’s also not much of a threat to his career as governor: if the best the left can do is keep him at two-thirds of the vote, he’s going to continue pretending they don’t exist.
And yet it may still come back to haunt him. Cuomo’s ethics shenanigans mean the possibility of indictment is unlikely but not nonexistent. If he makes it without legal trouble, people will wonder just how he did so. And if he alienates the left enough–Zephyr Teachout’s campaign had no trouble attracting headlines even outside New York, and she raised money outside the state as well–he’ll have no grassroots bandwagon for a national campaign. (Good luck in Iowa!)
Cuomo knows that it’s difficult to be a New York liberal in a national campaign. Now he’s learning that it’s not so easy not to be a New York liberal in New York. He wanted an uneventful governorship and a shot at the presidency. Both are looking increasingly out of reach.