Like a crocus in February, Andrew Cuomo has begun to peek through the wintry landscape. Whether he blossoms into a gift bouquet to the Democratic Party and the nation is very much “to be seen.” But the 2020 presidential race will take shape sooner than you think.
Cuomo’s budding emergence is no accident. He’s a planner without an accidental bone is his body. He brings his father’s name, a sharp tongue in the service of anti-Trumpists, and a challenging record as a two-term governor in New York.
Nothing else is clear. Cuomo’s government record is a mixture of right wing economics and left wing social issues that got him elected and re-elected, while alienating a good slice of New York progressives. He first ran in 2010 as a tax-cutting, spending-slashing, union bashing new Democrat, and big cuts in the estate tax, bank tax, and upper income tax came early and hard. So did spending caps for schools and local governments. But so did real gun control, gay marriage and protections for reproductive freedom. He was a kind of “pro-gractionary” with progressive social policies and reactionary economics that Paul Ryan would embrace.
As 2010 became 2014 and re-election beckoned, his “pro-gractionary” image bit him hard. New York’s Working Families Party began to revolt and threatened to withhold their valuable endorsement. They backed down at the request of a few powerful unions and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who eventually got him the WFP line. But he still got a left Democratic primary challenge from the unknown and unmonied Zephyr Teachout who beat him up very effectively. He won the primary with about 60 percent of the vote, and went on to a general election victory of the same size against a similarly unknown and unmonied Republican. Not a good year.
Cuomo got the message. Since then he’s moved left on a lot of stuff. He’s a big advocate of infrastructure, and enacted a version of Bernie Sanders’ free tuition plan. Sanders’ came to New York to praise him and free tuition became his entry point to national notice. He has repositioned himself as a true progressive, has good labor support, makes a nice appearance and wants to be president.
It’s a promising opening gambit. However. He has three anchors around his neck. One is beyond his control. The other two are amenable to change and relief, but he’s not likely to head that way.
The one beyond his control is a pending criminal trial for his closest political operative, accused of a bribery and corruption scheme involving billions. This isn’t a peripheral player, it’s at the heart of the Cuomo administration and no one knows where it will go.
The second anchor is related. Cuomo has continued one part of his right-wing economics. He has taken corporate giveaways and crony capitalism to new heights. Billions in cash and tax preferences have been peddled to large corporations, mostly in the name of economic development upstate. Aside from the corruption implications there is no evidence that any of it works. But he continues to dump cash on supply side projects. It’s bad policy and bad politics, especially among progressive Democrats. But he doubles down regularly and it’s unlikely he backs off these costly mistakes.
The third anchor is a little delicate. Cuomo has a certain charm and steely intelligence that are attractive characteristics. But he is generally not liked or trusted by the political class, press, and he’s generated little personal affection in the electorate. The bizarre tale of Bill de Blasio has helped define the problem. After lifting mightily in 2014 to help Cuomo with his WFP/progressive problem, de Blasio has suffered a series of Cuomo insults, rejections and attacks. They were harsh, undeservedly gratuitous and image-defining for both men. Di Blasio looked weak and feckless. Cuomo looked out of control and mean. Tales of angry outbursts, control-freakiness, and unkindness now follow Cuomo like stink on a pig. Normally this doesn’t rise to a level that affects national politics (see Trump, D). But in New York at least, the long knives are out among pols and press. Cuomo has never seemed interested in admitting or dealing with the problem. But it’s real.
Cuomo’s potential candidacy is not to be sneezed at. He brings assets, skills and determination. But his liabilities are real. If he deals with them he will be formidable. If he doesn’t, he will fade as less dangerous and nicer candidates emerge.