MAKE no mistake. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo prefers to preside when his state's economy is booming.
"I don't like being unpopular," he says when asked how his state's protracted budget crisis and his dip in the polls affect his feelings about the job. "I don't like wearing hair shirts. They're very, very uncomfortable. It's wearying, actually, because you're fighting great waves of distress and unhappiness.... I'd much rather be cheered than hooted."
Still, the governor, who is beginning his tenth year in the job, insists he knew what he was getting into when he chose to run for a third term in 1990. "I chose it knowingly - I can't complain," he says.
Against the advice of his son Andrew the brightest political mind I know in the state the governor says he made three commercials that warned voters of tough times and sacrifices ahead. His standing in the polls fell, just as his son predicted, but he won by what he stresses was the second-largest margin in state history.
In an interview in his Capitol office, Mr. Cuomo adds that anyone choosing the job just for its "halcyon days" doesn't belong in it: "Hard times justify the governorship." You take the job because you want to make a contribution, he says, so getting out before you get into trouble is "a kind of hypocrisy."
The recession that has put such a crimp on his and other states' revenue and spending, he says, is the result of the nation taking too much for granted and growing "fat, sassy, and lazy" over the years.
Old values such as the willingness to work hard and save for future generations were allowed to slip away. Instead of recognizing the problem, he says, "We made up another war, won it, and felt strong again." He ticks off the examples from Grenada and Panama to the "big one" with Iraq. The latter, he says, "allowed us to fool ourselves into thinking we were really truly mighty.... We weren't. We were just militarily strong."
At such moments, when New York's governor is sounding like a presidential candidate, it is tempting to ask him if he harbors regrets over his decision Dec. 20 not to seek the Democratic nomination.
"Sure, it's a fair question," the governor finally concedes after challenging its relevancy to a previous question. "I just don't want to answer it."
Yet Cuomo will also tell you that he is "provably distinguishable" from most Democrats in publicly declaring President Bush politically vulnerable more than a year ago. "He has no rationale, and in the end it's rationale that counts," says Cuomo. He says the best Bush slogan that could be offered is: "I won the war - the other guy's a bum."
Yet the governor says no Democrat should assume that he will prosper just because such a Republican opponent slides in the polls. "You can't beat him just because you're an alternative," he says. "In prizefighting if you want to beat the champion, you have to beat him convincingly."
And in Governor Cuomo's view, some of the Democratic presidential candidates aren't sounding that different from Republicans these days.
"I think a lot of Democrats have forgotten the poor," he says. "Do you hear the candidates talking about cities? About urban problems? I hear them all saying the same thing: 'Let's do a middle-class tax cut.
Cuomo cites his own differences with fellow Democrats to further underscore the point that many Republicans and Democrats take similar stands these days.
Three of the Democratic presidential candidates, for instance, now endorse the death penalty. Though also a Democrat, the governor says he would never take such a stand. Nor would he ever sign a "Draconian" bill, such as that signed by fellow Democrat Jim Florio, governor of New Jersey, to limit welfare benefits for a mother who chooses to have a second child.
"What are you trying to do - talk her into an abortion?" asks Cuomo.