Commentary Magazine


Topic: populism

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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Why Warren Is a Threat to Clinton

In his New York Times column, “Warren Can Win,” David Brooks writes this:

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In his New York Times column, “Warren Can Win,” David Brooks writes this:

[Hillary] Clinton is obviously tough, but she just can’t speak with a clear voice against Wall Street and Washington insiders. [Elizabeth] Warren’s wing shows increasing passion and strength, both in opposing certain Obama nominees and in last week’s budget fight.

The history of populist candidates is that they never actually get the nomination. The establishment wins. That’s still likely. But there is something in the air. The fundamental truth is that every structural and historical advantage favors Clinton, but every day more Democrats embrace the emotion and view defined by Warren.

That strikes me as right. Senator Warren has a hold on the hearts of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in a way that Mrs. Clinton does not. And one can imagine that Warren’s anti-Wall Street stand will be in 2016 what Barack Obama’s anti-Iraq war stand was in 2008–an issue that ignites a political fire that consumes Hillary Clinton.

Secretary Clinton is still the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, of course, and it remains to be seen if Senator Warren–if she decides to run–has anything like the political skills Barack Obama possesses. That’s highly unlikely. On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton is quite an average political talent–inauthentic, often stiff and uninteresting, not at all a natural campaigner (as her husband was). And if there’s a compelling rationale for her to run, it’s not clear to me what it is. As President Obama’s longtime political adviser David Axelrod put it, “What happened in 2008 was that Hillary’s candidacy got out in front of any rationale for it. And the danger is that’s happening again. You hear Ready for Hillary — it’s like, Ready for What? And now Hillary’s task is to find what it is she’s running for and running about, and what would the future look like under another President Clinton. … She has to answer that question.”

Mrs. Clinton couldn’t do that in 2008; it’s an open question if she can in 2016.

The current political climate is unusually unstable for both political parties. We’re seeing populist anger from both the left and the right. At this moment it looks to be more on the rise among Democrats than Republicans. And that can’t be good news for Hillary Clinton.

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Jindal’s Populist Manifesto Has a Problem

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made some headlines with his speech to the Republican National Committee yesterday in which he called out the GOP as having behaved like “the stupid party” in 2012. He is hardly alone in considering the infamous cracks of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock about rape and pregnancy to be classic examples of stupidity but the main point of his address wasn’t about the perils of nominating idiots for Senate seats. Instead, Jindal put forth a manifesto about how to revive conservatism in the age of Obama. His formula is deceptively simple: opt out of a rigged game focused on how to balance the budget and replace it with a populist approach in which big government is the target.

The idea is a powerful message and is exactly what the Republican grass roots wants to hear, especially the part in which the Washington is put down and state and local governments, such as the one Jindal leads, are lauded. He’s right that the current debate in the Capitol over things like the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff is being fought on the Democrats’ terms and has, predictably, led to GOP defeats. Jindal is also right that Republicans ought to be more interested in growing the economy than in enforcing austerity. But as much as his talk sounded like a winning approach to the 2016 presidential primaries in which he may be a serious competitor, the problem for his party is that opting out of the current debates on the debt and the budget is easy if your office is in located in Baton Rouge. It’s not an option for a House Republican caucus that remains the only real obstacle to President Obama’s plans for higher taxes and more spending in the next four years.

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Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made some headlines with his speech to the Republican National Committee yesterday in which he called out the GOP as having behaved like “the stupid party” in 2012. He is hardly alone in considering the infamous cracks of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock about rape and pregnancy to be classic examples of stupidity but the main point of his address wasn’t about the perils of nominating idiots for Senate seats. Instead, Jindal put forth a manifesto about how to revive conservatism in the age of Obama. His formula is deceptively simple: opt out of a rigged game focused on how to balance the budget and replace it with a populist approach in which big government is the target.

The idea is a powerful message and is exactly what the Republican grass roots wants to hear, especially the part in which the Washington is put down and state and local governments, such as the one Jindal leads, are lauded. He’s right that the current debate in the Capitol over things like the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff is being fought on the Democrats’ terms and has, predictably, led to GOP defeats. Jindal is also right that Republicans ought to be more interested in growing the economy than in enforcing austerity. But as much as his talk sounded like a winning approach to the 2016 presidential primaries in which he may be a serious competitor, the problem for his party is that opting out of the current debates on the debt and the budget is easy if your office is in located in Baton Rouge. It’s not an option for a House Republican caucus that remains the only real obstacle to President Obama’s plans for higher taxes and more spending in the next four years.

Jindal’s populist battle plan in which the GOP declares itself in opposition to everything that is big including government, labor unions and business is smart politics and takes the party back to its Reaganite roots. He’s also right in understanding that conservatives win when they fight elections on the broad principles of limited government, federalism, lower taxes, individual rights and use Washington as their piñata instead of being pinned down on just how much of the entitlement state they are willing to retain.

Divided government is frustrating for both sides but especially for a Republican party that has the shorter end of the stick in Washington. With a strident ideological liberal in the White House and a Democrat-run Senate there is no way the GOP-led House can enforce its will on the other two. Ironically, while Jindal’s ideas for a wholesale cutback in the size of government would seem to be in line with the views of the most hard-line Tea Party conservatives in Congress who are adamant about not being co-opted into supporting more debt, his call for the party to avoid being entangled in conflicts about the budget seems in line with more moderate party members who want to punt on those issues. The point is, if you believe, as Jindal does, that the federal government is too big and too powerful, then how do you manifest that opposition to the president’s agenda other than by taking a stand in Congress on those issues even if that puts you in, as he rightly says, a rigged game?

Jindal’s principles are sound as is his political advice to the party. He’s right that they must go big in terms of ideas while avoiding the Democrats’ traps that could lead to unpopular government shutdowns. But the problem for Republicans is that 2016 is a long way off. They need to do more in the coming months and years than to tread water while thinking deep thoughts about a vision for the country’s future in that time. The Louisiana governor’s approach makes sense in the long term but embattled Republican members of the House and Senate may be forgiven for wondering if he has any ideas that will help them stand up to Obama’s full court press on the Hill while he is making friends in Iowa and New Hampshire.

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