LIFER APRIL 12, 2013
If the Germans covered Albany, they’d have a word for the ambivalence that Andrew Cuomo provokes in those with fond memories of his father. The mostly friendly rivalry between him and Mario is no secret—how the son made sure to let people know that as a member of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet, he’d attained a rank above that of mere governor; how the father dismissed the son’s 252-page 2010 campaign platform as a “pamphlet.” And for liberals observing this running Freudian drama, it’s hard not to root for the older guy. He was the one who stood against Ronald Reagan at his peak with that great 1984 convention speech and who went to Notre Dame to offer a Roman Catholic’s defense of abortion rights. He even left us behind his diaries. Andrew, on the other hand, has often appeared callow and controlling: He drove a Jaguar with AMC ESQ plates; he ordered up 30,000 copies of a 150-page brochure on his Housing and Urban Development (HUD) tenure; and after a disastrous 2002 run for governor, he went to work for a developer he had investigated at HUD, raking in $2.5 million over three years helping to build luxury marinas, of all things.
But Andrew has turned out to be an awfully effective governor—more effective, on the scale of basic legislative accomplishments, than his father was for most of his twelve-year tenure. In his first two years in office, Cuomo the Younger closed a $10 billion deficit, signed an ethics reform package, and legalized same-sex marriage. This year, he pushed through aggressive gun-control limits, raised the minimum wage by nearly two bucks, and extended a tax surcharge on millionaires, all the while wrapping up the budget before Easter, which used to be about as common in Albany as kudzu.1 It was his father who famously said (to this magazine, in 1985) that “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” Now Andrew—who, let’s be honest, isn’t the most lyrical of gentlemen—is forcing liberals to confront a question that is particularly salient to their post–Barack Obama future: What if they’ve been overvaluing eloquence all along?
Not surprisingly, some of Cuomo père’s loyalists bridle at having the contrast between son and father framed in such terms. They insist that Mario Cuomo got more done than he is often remembered for: holding firm against the death penalty, protecting the safety net in the era of selfishness, and, yes, even passing mundane reforms like a seat-belt law. To this day, they say, Cuomo’s reputation is undermined by his rhetorical gifts. “I used to argue with him on an almost daily basis that ‘you’ve gone beyond deciding how many Bob Big Boys to put on the New York State Thruway,’” says Cuomo pal Bill O’Shaughnessy, head of WVOX in Westchester County. “Mario’s problem was that he suffered from the dumb blonde argument—he’s so articulate and so graceful and so commanding a speaker that he can’t possibly be a good manager. But he was a better manager than people give him credit for.”
Mario’s defenders also note that he was operating under much different circumstances. He did not have the advantage of coming into office after the unholy Spitzer-Paterson era, which has made it easier for Andrew to play the rescuing superhero.2 And in recent years, the governor’s office has accrued more authority over the budget, Mario’s bête noire. (It was the unfinished budget, he said, that kept him from boarding that plane for the New Hampshire primary in late 1991.) Most important, Mario was contending with a vigorous Republican opposition, whereas Andrew is blessed with a New York GOP that is historically weak and conspicuously reasonable.3
Still, it’s becoming hard for Mario partisans to withhold praise for Cuomo fils’s success at shouldering big expectations. “The Boston Globe once accused Mario Cuomo of being the ‘great philosopher statesman of the American nation,’” says O’Shaughnessy. “If you have a son and heir to the family business who makes his living with words and concepts, that’s pretty heavy shit to lay on a kid.”
Andrew is never going to be mistaken for his father at the lectern. Where Mario’s delivery was tremulous and stirring, Andrew seeks to rally by volume and insistence, and he’s too fond of unlovely words like “rightsize.” But Andrew has mastered a different set of political skills—he knows exactly when to threaten and when to reward, when to claw and when to concede. He gave up on serious redistricting reform to protect the cooperative Republican Senate leader; he traded business tax breaks for the higher minimum wage; he agreed to include in the gun-control reform bill a noxious restriction on the disclosure of gun-permit data. “He’s found a way to leave something on the table for the other guy so they can say, ‘I can do business with this man,’” says Republican political consultant Michael McKeon. Above all, Cuomo has intuited that what Albany legislators of all stripes needed most was, as he has put it, “redemption.” After years of being laughingstocks, the state’s Republicans were willing to give up an awful lot for the gratification of being seen as getting things done, even if those things tended toward his priorities, not theirs.
To what can such savvy be attributed? A former aide of Mario’s says we too often overlook the other half of Andrew’s inheritance—his strong-willed mother, Matilda. “Mario Cuomo is one hundred percent Neapolitan, so he is a philosopher by nature,” the former aide said. “Andrew is fifty percent Sicilian, ... which means you get things done by hook or crook.” Andrew also benefited from watching his father in office; he saw how badly he was hurt by those budget battles, by failing to set priorities, by resisting sacrificing in one area to gain in another.
But a comprehensive theory of Andrew may require looking beyond the Cuomos entirely. “I spent eight years watching one of the best,” Andrew once said, and by that he meant not his father but Bill Clinton, the man who did get on the plane to New Hampshire in 1991. It was from observing Clinton that Andrew Cuomo learned the worth of the tangible if prosaic list of goals, the split-the-difference compromise, and the seductive one-on-one, making the guy you’re talking to think he’s the most important in the world. “For Mario, the president he always talked about was Lincoln,” says Gerald Benjamin, a former Ulster County leader. “Who does Andrew look to? He looks to Clinton.”
Cuomo’s apprenticeship with Clinton may also help explain something else: that lingering ambivalence many liberals feel toward him. “The father was principled above all,” says someone who has worked closely with both Cuomo administrations. “Andrew is pragmatic and whatever’s the opposite of principled.” In such critiques, we hear an echo of the old discomfort with Clintonism that helped drive many Democrats away from a different Clinton in 2008 and toward another elegant, inscrutable writer with a knack for giving a great speech.
Odds are the top of the 2016 Democratic field will feature either Hillary Clinton or Andrew Cuomo. If it is Cuomo, his success at truly winning over Democrats nationwide may depend on the extent to which he is able to transcend both his role models, or rather, to meld them into one, the deft tactician and the righteous idealist. It would be quite an achievement—essentially, resolving the longstanding tension between his party’s heart and its head. Pull that one off, and there won’t be need for any more brochures.