Mario Cuomo, the great liberal hope for decades of tumultuous American politics, passed away Thursday at his home in Manhattan. Will this sad occasion spark a Socratic discussion among Democrats as to the nature and direction of the party former New York Governor Cuomo championed?
Cuomo himself might consider that a fit memorial. The examination of every side of a question was an element of his nature. The timing is right – Democrats were crushed in the 2014 midterms and now must decide how to respond. As the 2016 presidential cycle begins members must refashion themselves from the party of Obama to the party of . . . what? Who?
“Will the party refashion itself based on an uncompromising progressive core or will it take the much more cautious centrist approach? Eulogizing Mario Cuomo might trigger an uncomfortable ideological exercise for Democrats, but it will be needed,” writes Charles Ellison at the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog.
To those on the left of the Democratic spectrum, Cuomo represents the road not taken. In 1991, two private jets sat waiting at an Albany airport to whisk Cuomo to New Hampshire to personally pay the filing fee that would put him on state’s presidential primary ballot. Yet the so-called “Hamlet on the Hudson” never appeared. Cuomo was fighting a budget ballot with GOP state lawmakers. He said the importance of that to his state meant he could not leave his post.
Few believed that was his only reason to decline a presidential run. To liberals, he missed a winnable race. He could have beaten Bill Clinton in the 1992 primaries, runs their reasoning. Clinton was already weakened by questions about his draft status and alleged womanizing. Then Cuomo would have been a formidable opponent to President George H. W. Bush, in the liberal view. The sliding economy was driving down the incumbent’s numbers as the positive glow from the Gulf War victory faded.
“The reality of the ’92 Democratic race is that Clinton won only because Democrats had no broadly acceptable alternative to rally around . . . Cuomo could and would have changed that dynamic. He very well could have been president,” wrote Steve Kornacki of CapitalNewYork in a lengthy 2011analysis of Cuomo’s “Hamlet” moment.
Today Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is playing the Cuomo role. Liberals are pushing her to declare for 2016 in hopes of heading off another Clinton with more centrist economic and foreign policy positions.
But to non-liberal Democrats (or Democratic pragmatists, as they might define themselves) it is those particular policies that are the issue. Senator Warren is too far to the left to win a general election, in their view – something this wing of the party believed of Cuomo as well.
After all, if he had run in 1992, and won the nomination, Cuomo might have been just another northeast liberal foil for a Republican political apparatus well-practiced in fighting such opponents. George H. W. Bush dispatched Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis by painting him as soft on crime and tax hikes. A governor of New York – no matter his eloquence – might have been vulnerable to a similar attack.
“Cuomo was not different then. Independents and moderate Democrats would have seen him as the same old, same old: a liberal who wanted to give their hard-earned money to poor people,” writes Jonathan Alter in The Daily Beast.
Clinton won by presenting less of a contrast to Bush – a southern Democrat who carried out the death penalty and seemed more centrist on economic questions.
If Cuomo had somehow managed to win, he would have been a compelling president, according to Mr. Alter, a combination of the blunt-speaking Teddy Roosevelt and the intellectual Woodrow Wilson. But the time was not right. The House went GOP only two years later, in 1994. Cuomo himself lost a reelection battle in New York that same year.
“His time had passed,” writes Alter.
But has the time for his positions come again? That’s what’s playing out in today’s Warren vs. Hillary Clinton discussions. And this is a conversation in which a Cuomo might participate – Mario Cuomo’s son Andrew, just sworn in for his second term as New York governor, his father’s old job.