Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo: Earnest, Humble, and Wrong

When former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, father of current Governor Andrew Cuomo, passed away last week, the remembrances were strangely silent on the entirety of Cuomo’s career in office save about three quarters of an hour of it in 1984. Like our current president, Cuomo was famous for giving a Democratic National Convention speech. Unlike our current president, this is perfectly ridiculous: he was a three-term governor of New York. But missing from most if not all of the remembrances of that famous speech is the most important aspect of it: Mario Cuomo, for all his poise and eloquence, was wrong.

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When former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, father of current Governor Andrew Cuomo, passed away last week, the remembrances were strangely silent on the entirety of Cuomo’s career in office save about three quarters of an hour of it in 1984. Like our current president, Cuomo was famous for giving a Democratic National Convention speech. Unlike our current president, this is perfectly ridiculous: he was a three-term governor of New York. But missing from most if not all of the remembrances of that famous speech is the most important aspect of it: Mario Cuomo, for all his poise and eloquence, was wrong.

The speech, which aimed populist fire at Ronald Reagan’s economic optimism, is not only being remembered on the national political stage because it was a pretty good speech; it’s also because it created a groundswell of hope among progressives that Cuomo would run for president. The speech survives with its almost mythical legacy precisely because Cuomo was smart enough–or humble enough, to be fair–not to run. Liberals like to wonder what might have been. But the truth is, we know exactly what might have been. Had Mario Cuomo run for president in 1988–the first cycle after his speech and the last real chance he’d have to run for an open presidential seat–he would have lost. And it probably wouldn’t have been close.

As far as the economic recovery was concerned, the sun was already up on Reagan’s morning in America. Here’s CNN comparing the Reagan recovery with the Obama recovery in 2012:

“The Reagan recovery had one of the fastest rates of growth we ever saw,” said Barry Bosworth, an economist at the Brookings Institution. “If anything it was too strong. It was spectacular.”

Just take a look at the numbers:

The economy grew at 4.5% in 1983, with a few quarters of growth north of 8%. In 2011, meanwhile, the economy grew just 1.7%.

In just one month — September 1983 — the economy added more than a million jobs. For the full year, the economy added almost 3.5 million jobs, a trend that continued into 1984, an election year in which Reagan captured 49 states in a landslide victory.

Obama can claim job growth of 1.8 million in 2011. A welcome comeback, but still tepid by comparison.

Looking ahead to 2012, Obama could replicate the 243,000 jobs created in January over each of the next 11 months and still not approach Reagan’s total for 1984 of 3.9 million.

That meant that Cuomo’s speech had to take a “yes, but…” approach to the economic recovery. But even that was fairly weak stuff. Reagan’s economy saw a decline in poverty as well. This wasn’t some recovery for plutocrats. It was a genuine economic revival.

Cuomo’s emotional appeal was, in the end, mostly just an appeal to emotion. Which helps explain why the speech–and only the speech–is so beloved by today’s progressives. One name that keeps cropping up in stories about the speech is Elizabeth Warren. Considering the shallow nature of her populism, this is actually quite insulting to the thoughtful Cuomo. There’s a reason I have Cuomo’s campaign diaries on my bookshelf behind me and not Warren’s big book of grievances. Left-wing populists really ought to take one glance at the comparison between Cuomo and Warren and wonder how they fell so far so fast. Anyone who thinks Warren can or should fill his shoes is selling something (probably on behalf of a super-PAC).

And Mario Cuomo’s nightfall-in-America routine lives on because it wasn’t tested in a national election. I don’t know how Cuomo would have fared in 1992, though I have my doubts. But had Cuomo’s anti-Reaganism actually challenged Reagan’s legacy on the national stage–that is, had Cuomo run to succeed Reagan–it would have been trounced. Perpetual pessimism about American decline did not age well during the Reagan years.

But it’s not about facts; it’s about feelings. And tales of American woe make the far left feel good; the pessimism feeds the belief that there is a wide market in America for their fantasies of national decline and vengeful redistribution on a massive scale. But as with any political platform, timing is key. Americans quite enjoyed seeing their country be both prosperous and free during Reagan’s presidency. Perhaps Warren’s timing is better than Cuomo’s?

And that consideration is really the best parallel between Cuomo and Warren. We don’t know if Warren actually wants to be president. Does she have the fire in the belly that eluded Cuomo? Maybe, maybe not. But it is highly likely she doesn’t have the Clintonian ambition she would run up against (just as Cuomo would have in 1992). It’s rare, but sometimes politicians actually set limits on themselves. Mario Cuomo did. If Warren does as well, she’ll at least earn some of this otherwise incongruous comparison.

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Cuomo’s Version of Liberal Tolerance

There’s no sign that Hillary Clinton will forgo a run for a Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 that appears to be hers for the asking. But should she pass, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will likely be one of the main contenders. As such, he has spent the last year shoring up his left flank by departing from the moderate policies that he ran on in 2010 and that characterized his first two years in office. But Cuomo’s pivot left has now escalated to the point where he not only wishes to impose liberal ideas on a blue state apparently all too eager to accept such dictates but to make it clear that those who oppose him are no longer welcome to stay.

That was the upshot of a remarkable rant by Cuomo on a public radio station in Albany. As the Albany Times Union reported, in the course of an angry critique of the national Republican Party and as well as New Yorkers who oppose his SAFE Act—a draconian gun-control bill railroaded through the New York legislature not long after the Newtown massacre—Cuomo said the following:

You’re seeing that play out in New York. … The Republican Party candidates are running against the SAFE Act — it was voted for by moderate Republicans who run the Senate! Their problem is not me and the Democrats; their problem is themselves. Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.

Cuomo’s astonishing statement may please a suddenly ascendant left wing of the Democratic Party that is now feeling its strength after the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City and thinking about how it could influence the 2016 Democratic race. But it also demonstrates a disturbing degree of intolerance that illustrates the general rule of thumb, that conservatives believe liberals to be wrong and liberals think conservatives are evil. While this will endear Cuomo with his party’s base, it may come back to haunt him if he ever gets the chance to campaign on the national stage.

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There’s no sign that Hillary Clinton will forgo a run for a Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 that appears to be hers for the asking. But should she pass, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will likely be one of the main contenders. As such, he has spent the last year shoring up his left flank by departing from the moderate policies that he ran on in 2010 and that characterized his first two years in office. But Cuomo’s pivot left has now escalated to the point where he not only wishes to impose liberal ideas on a blue state apparently all too eager to accept such dictates but to make it clear that those who oppose him are no longer welcome to stay.

That was the upshot of a remarkable rant by Cuomo on a public radio station in Albany. As the Albany Times Union reported, in the course of an angry critique of the national Republican Party and as well as New Yorkers who oppose his SAFE Act—a draconian gun-control bill railroaded through the New York legislature not long after the Newtown massacre—Cuomo said the following:

You’re seeing that play out in New York. … The Republican Party candidates are running against the SAFE Act — it was voted for by moderate Republicans who run the Senate! Their problem is not me and the Democrats; their problem is themselves. Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.

Cuomo’s astonishing statement may please a suddenly ascendant left wing of the Democratic Party that is now feeling its strength after the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City and thinking about how it could influence the 2016 Democratic race. But it also demonstrates a disturbing degree of intolerance that illustrates the general rule of thumb, that conservatives believe liberals to be wrong and liberals think conservatives are evil. While this will endear Cuomo with his party’s base, it may come back to haunt him if he ever gets the chance to campaign on the national stage.

Cuomo’s reference to abortion opponents is especially interesting in the way it seeks to declare them not only out of the political mainstream in New York (which is undoubtedly true) but also worthy of being driven out of the Empire State. As Kathryn Jean Lopez noted in National Review on Friday, the governor’s rant demonstrates the distance both the Democratic Party and the Cuomo family have traveled in the last 30 years. As Lopez writes, in 1984, one of Cuomo’s predecessors as governor of New York—his father Mario—famously articulated a nuanced position in which he restated his personal opposition to abortion while defending its legality and public funding.

This same intolerance is made manifest in the federal ObamaCare mandate that seeks to force Catholic charity groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor pay for abortion drugs and contraception for its employees. That is a far cry from Mario Cuomo’s attempt to build a wall between private opposition to abortion and a public right to it. The Democrats of Barack Obama and Andrew Cuomo will now brook no opposition to their dictates or, in Cuomo’s case, even allow opponents to reside in “his” state.

However, the spark for Cuomo’s anger—opposition to the gun bill he promulgated in his State of the State last year and then rammed through the legislature inside of a day as a sop to public anguish about Newtown—also demonstrates the incoherence of this new extreme liberalism. The SAFE act imposed new bans on assault weapons, gun magazines, and imposed even broader rules for background checks for legal gun purchases. But in the year since it was passed, it has gone largely unenforced since it has sown almost universal confusion among law-enforcement personnel and gun venders and owners who are unsure what is and what is not rendered illegal by the vague language in the sloppily-drafted legislation Cuomo championed.

One needn’t be an opponent of legalized abortion or a member of the National Rifle Association to understand the dangers of this sort of rhetoric and a legislative agenda driven by such sentiments. Liberals have spent the past few years posing as the champions of tolerance while denouncing the Tea Party and conservative Republicans as extremists. But now that the left wing of the Democratic Party has taken back the reins of the party from more centrist forces—or in Cuomo’s case, a former moderate has put his finger in the wind and changed his direction accordingly—the same dynamic could undermine their attempts to win national elections. Just as the GOP must worry about letting its most extreme elements dictate policy and candidates, Democrats should think twice about the spectacle of one of their leading lights going so far as to tell opponents of abortion and gun control to leave New York. If Clinton passes on the presidency and Cuomo makes a run for the White House, that intolerant line won’t be forgotten.

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