The political lessons of New York’s same-sex marriage vote
But the type of leadership that Mr. Cuomo exercised — setting a lofty goal, refusing to take no for an answer and using every tool at his disposal to achieve it — is reminiscent of the stories sometimes told about with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had perhaps the most impressive record of legislative accomplishment of any recent president. It’s also a brand of leadership that many Democrats I speak with feel is lacking in President Obama.
Suppose that the New York State Senate operated according to the rules of the United States Senate and a bill failed unless it secured a 60 percent supermajority. What would people be saying about Andrew Cuomo now? Well, it seems to me that many people would be castigating his failed leadership. Instead of Michael Barbaro’s account of his behind-the-scenes leadership reading like a virtuoso performance it would be reading like a story of a failed inside game. The meeting with high-dollar pro-equality Republican donors would seem not savvy, but naive and weak. Conversely, if the US Senate operated on a 50 vote rule, then both the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank bill would have gone further in advancing progressive priorities, there would have been more economic stimulus in the 111th Congress, the DREAM Act would have passed, and it’s conceivable that some kind of nationwide carbon pricing scheme would be in place. Which is just to say that political institutions matter, a lot.
I think the lesson here is that wealthy people exert massively disproportionate influence over American politics. Donors in both parties tend to be more socially liberal and economically conservative than the party’s voters. A large share of Republican voters favor higher taxes on the rich and oppose cutting Medicare, but those positions have zero GOP representation at the national elected level. Likewise, national Democrats are also far more pro-business than are Democratic voters. If Obama’s agenda attracted the support of a large chunk of the Republican donor base, he’d probably attract more Republican support in Congress, which in turn would make moderate Democrats less skittish.
I line up most directly with Matt, but I’d add one more observation: The lesson here is that New York’s political system was ready for gay marriage. After all, this wasn’t an issue that had lacked for willing and skilled governors, engaged and deep-pocketed donors, or majoritarian legislatures in the past. And yet it had failed again and again and again and again.
But steadily, the polls changed and the idea went mainstream, and that created an opportunity for an able governor, eager donors and a slim majority to finish the job. Andrew Cuomo couldn’t have passed this law 10 years ago, and if he’d failed to pass it this year, then some other governor of New York probably would have passed it before the decade was out. In the end, major social change can be accelerated by political skill and delayed by political ineptitude. But whether it happens or not is rarely a story that governors or presidents ultimately control.