For much of the past decade, as he came back from a disastrous 2002 run for Governor and a painfully public divorce, Andrew Cuomo seemed to have the political gods smiling upon him.
When he sought the Democratic nomination for State Attorney General in 2006, his main opponent was Mark Green, a man who had antagonized at least as many people as he had over the years without gaining Mr. Cuomo’s political wiles. Then, ensconced in the position that had propelled Eliot Spitzer to a landslide win as Governor, he assisted in Mr. Spitzer’s self-destruction and then barely had to lift a finger as his successor, David Paterson, took himself out of the running in 2010.
Just to make sure nothing went wrong that year, the Republican Party blessed him by nominating Carl Paladino, whose lack of social graces made the Democrats he had moved past look like a trio of Fred Astaires in comparison.
Handed his landslide, Mr. Cuomo seems to have begun to believe he really was that good and his instincts that sure. And dealing with legislative leaders like Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos wasn’t going to awaken him from that reverie, since he had their numbers and better cards to play. He ran roughshod over state employees in contract talks, using the threat of layoffs to make them accept awful contract terms, and consolidated his status as the Democrat plutocrats wanted to adopt.
Brushed Off ‘Occupy’s’ Reality Check
He was all set, having shaken down the state workforce, to wrap up the heist by completely rescinding the millionaires’ tax Mr. Paterson had imposed a couple of years earlier when Occupy Wall Street delivered an abrupt reality check by branding him “Governor One Percent” and having more than a few Democrats nod their heads in recognition. But that merely forced a brief detour by Mr. Cuomo, who kept a marked-down version of the tax for the state’s wealthiest while eliminating it for those making less than $1 million. By early spring of 2012, he was sticking it to public employees again with Tier 6 of the pension system.
His accomplices in this were state legislators, who brushed off entreaties from their union supporters because the Governor had offered them in return the opportunity to continue drawing their own district lines. It stopped short of being a get-out-of-jail-free card, but meant that barring indictment they had little to fear from challengers to their seats. Those who wonder how the public can have such a low opinion of both Congress and the Legislature yet keep electing the same people time and again haven’t stopped to consider that if you’re setting the boundaries in which you run to ensure that a majority of the voters within them don’t find you repulsive, you can beat the percentages every time.
At the start of the year, it probably looked like nothing but blue skies smiling on Mr. Cuomo. State Republicans, stung by Mr. Paladino’s buffoonery four years ago, seemed ready to hand their nomination to Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who had twice gained election in a Democratic county and had enough table manners not to have to spend his campaign answering questions about threatening reporters or a sex life that had become public record.
These were solid credentials; the trouble was that Mr. Astorino had some political positions, in areas like abortion rights, fracking and gun control, that were bound to confine his appeal to the slowly receding group of Republican voters who were outnumbered by Democrats statewide by about 2-to-1. The only member of the GOP who has won the state’s highest office in the 40 years since the original Rockefeller Republican gave up the post to become Gerry Ford’s Vice President was George Pataki, who had the conventional party positions on cutting taxes and restoring the death penalty but supported abortion rights and was an environmentalist. Once in office, he showed he could spend money just as readily as any Democrat.
‘Only’ 20 Points Down
And so Mr. Astorino started out well behind Mr. Cuomo in the polls and remains there, although a recent survey from Quinnipiac showing him down by 20 points represents the closest he’s been. There was talk that Mr. Cuomo was focused not on winning election so much as doing it by such a huge margin that he could propel himself into the front ranks of Democratic contenders for President, Hillary Clinton or not.
The problem is, he’s had a couple of experiences this year to remind him and the rest of us that he isn’t as smart as all his success over the preceding eight years lulled him into believing. The power play in which he shut down the Moreland Commission got Preet Bharara into the game, and Mr. Cuomo quickly proved no match for him before wising up and stopped trying to outmaneuver him as if he were a legislative leader.
And then, when he bulldozed the Working Families Party into giving him its nomination at a time when polls showed the greatest threat to a comfortable margin of victory was a challenge from his left that could draw votes from disaffected liberals, he was unprepared for Zephyr Teachout’s decision to oppose him anyway and do it in the Democratic primary. The odds were so stacked against her that political pros believed she could claim a moral victory if she got 20 percent of the vote, but she actually got 34 percent, beating him outright in the Hudson Valley and making it close in Manhattan. Mr. Cuomo didn’t give a victory speech that night, maybe because he couldn’t stand in front of the cameras and plausibly exclaim, “You like me. You really, really like me.” He knew that if the unions had actually indulged their anger with him and rallied behind Ms. Teachout, victory might have been as elusive for him as it proved for the favorites in the baseball playoffs.
Ignored the Message
He had been sent a message by the primary result and Mr. Bharara’s continuing investigation of the work begun by the Moreland Commission: stop acting cute and straighten up. Yet he has continued to play his games, insisting that he would only debate Mr. Astorino head-to-head once and then only if it were not televised, with a second debate to air on public television but with the other two candidates included.
Mr. Astorino, for reasons that aren’t clear, refused to participate in the radio debate, which at the least would have attracted heavy newspaper coverage of the one opportunity the Governor was offering him to go one-on-one on equal footing rather than taking body blows from Mr. Cuomo’s far superior campaign war chest. It’s hard to see how he benefits from just the four-candidate debate in which the rivalry figures to be diffused by the format, unless he’s counting on Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins coming off well enough to draw significant Democratic support away from the Governor beyond the roughly 10 percent he’s been pulling in the polls.
But Mr. Cuomo seems to have lost sight of something in his effort to minimize debate time, and with it the possibility of a glaring gaffe on his part. It’s not that this isn’t a legitimate concern; his clumsiness in dealing with Ms. Teachout during the primary showed that when pressed he can make glaring errors the same way he did during the 2002 campaign. But in adopting the tiresome front-runner’s strategy of making himself scarce to limit an opponent’s chances of making up ground by outshining him in a public forum, he has shown he doesn’t understand why Ms. Teachout did as well as she did despite a miniscule budget, slender name recognition and no record to run on.
A Refreshing Honesty
What voters who took the time to examine her candidacy found appealing was that she spoke sincerely and with some passion about what she thought was wrong with politics and policies in Mr. Cuomo’s New York. She didn’t have the money for the commercials he’s used to paint Mr. Astorino as an “extreme conservative” who’s out of step running in a progressive state. What she offered instead was an intellectual honesty and a frankness that if they ever were part of the Governor’s arsenal were long ago scraped away as he sought to make himself attractive to the kind of big-time contributors who are considered essential for any politician with national ambitions.
Contrary to his interest in muscle cars, Mr. Cuomo isn’t looking to see what he’s got under the hood politically. His campaign has been so set on cruise control that it could have a time-clock as its logo.
And what he doesn’t appear to get is that the reason for doing debates—and more than a couple of them—wasn’t because he owed it to Ms. Teachout or Mr. Astorino—he owed it to the public.
He’s had some good moments as Governor, most notably his steering the same-sex-marriage bill to passage and the heavy-handed-but-necessary pushing through of the law toughening gun-control standards in the aftermath of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut nearly two years ago.
But aside from that? He may have transformed the Legislature from a dysfunctional organism into one that can pass timely budgets and slow the indictment of the mysterious creatures it places in leadership positions, but his pulling back on both independent redistricting and a serious look at not only state corruption but the mechanisms that enable it blunted the hopes of actually making it into a body that focused more on serving the voters than serving its members’ interests.
Avoiding His Lumps
And for that he’s got some explaining to do. Mr. Astorino will not ask some of the tough questions Ms. Teachout posed during her campaign about taxing policy and adequate funding for public services, because those are areas in which he thinks Mr. Cuomo’s main flaw is he hasn’t done enough to serve business interests and wealthier residents. But he might have been able, over a couple of one-on-one debates, to embarrass Mr. Cuomo on how short he has fallen of his campaign promises four years ago to give New York a government that not only functioned but was actually a force for good.
That would not have been a bad thing for the Governor, and given the demographics, more than likely wouldn’t have cost him the election. It might actually have had a positive effect, forcing him to think about what made him a good Attorney General and an attractive candidate for Governor, the kind Ms. Teachout and others found themselves rallying behind four years ago.
Instead, he has offered us a memoir in which it appears the only sign of introspection involves the crises he endured more than a decade ago, implying that he emerged a better man with an unlimited future.
Hasn’t Worn Success Well
There seems little question that Mr. Cuomo learned more from the humbling he experience in both his political and personal lives a dozen years ago than he has from the successes he’s enjoyed—if that’s the right word—more recently. The lofty dreams of where his momentum might carry him appear to have affected him negatively. They made him smug, yet also seem to have drained his confidence to the point where he became reluctant to step into the arena and put his ideas up against those of his opponents.
If he has any doubt that winning another term doesn’t mean that much if you do it without generating enthusiasm among the public, he might want to pause and consider the outcome of the Democratic primary, in which the loser did more to improve her future prospects than the handy winner did to burnish his.