Consider the plight of one American governor facing reelection in just a couple of weeks:
Confronting a third straight year of budget deficits, he had to sign the largest tax increase in the history of his state, where per-capita income taxes are 2 1/3 times the national average. For three straight years, his state has lost manufacturing jobs while ranking second among the 50 in violent crime and last in increase in high school graduates since 1980. By a margin of 2 to 1 the voters believe the state is headed in the wrong direction.
A state chief executive with those headaches probably wouldn't be blamed for spending long hours on his concession speech and in career counseling. But that's not the case with the man who belongs to those problems -- the nation's premier Teflon governor and many Democrats' White House Hope for 1992 -- Mario Cuomo of New York. Blessed with an inept opponent and an understanding electorate, Cuomo is headed for a landslide victory.
Already it is almost universally stipulated that Cuomo is as personally intelligent as he is publicly eloquent. He is also reflective, strong and sitting on a multimillion-dollar campaign surplus. If Teflon is added to that mix, doesn't Cuomo begin to look unbeatable for 1992? Not from here he doesn't.
Cuomo's potential problems as a national candidate go far beyond his Albany record. True, New York's state bond rating has fallen to 48, ahead of only Louisiana and Massachusetts, a development that enabled former New York mayor Ed Koch to observe, "If Gov. Cuomo had been reacting months ago instead of reacting now, we might not have lost our bond rating. ... We are the Mississippi of the 1990s."
It is Cuomo's performance in previous national campaigns that ought to concern Democrats in search of a 1992 winner. First there was "polenta." That's the Italian version of Cream of Wheat, to which Cuomo in December of 1983 publicly compared his endorsed presidential candidate, Walter Mondale. That was not helpful to the 1984 Mondale cause, but in that year's crucial New York presidential primary nobody could argue that Cuomo did not go the distance for his man.
By that October, however, Cuomo was once again playing his cruel games. Just days before the election, he publicly ruminated in The New York Times about whether he would run for president in 1988. Such open speculation by Cuomo effectively ruled out a Mondale second term and wrote off a Mondale first term.
During the 1988 Democratic nomination campaign, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis met with Cuomo to ask for the latter's endorsement before the important New York primary. After that meeting, Cuomo urged the front-runner to take two controversial steps. First, Dukakis should publicly announce that Jesse Jackson was on his short list of vice-presidential possibilities. Second, Dukakis should publicly break with the 30 Democratic U.S. senators, most of them strong supporters of Israel, who had written urging Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to negotiate with the Palestinians. To Michael Dukakis' credit, he turned Mario Cuomo down cold. To call such campaign advice terminally provincial is an understatement.
Even his fans admit that Cuomo is hypersensitive to criticism. Aware of this, a number of New York Democrats in the House declined the invitation to "roast" him at a Washington fund raiser some years back. Just before the event, Cuomo paid a courtesy call to then-House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill. It was a cordial session until the mischievous speaker asked the departing Cuomo, "Hey, governor, what's this about your being thin-skinned?" To which, Cuomo wheeled around and demanded, "Who told you that?"
With a rare ability to inspire, Mario Cuomo remains a favorite of the national press, who mostly remain susceptible to intelligence, wit, introspection and eloquence. Cuomo thinks and argues and engages, by all of which we in the press are captivated. Republican consultant Eddie Mahe insightfully attributes part of Cuomo's press appeal to the governor's past reluctance to run for president. "Most politicians cannot hide their raw ambition for higher office. It's like body heat," says Mahe. "But Cuomo fascinates because he's so different." A lot of Democrats are willing to dismiss criticism of Cuomo as petty and persnickety. After all, Mario alone makes Democrats' hearts throb, breasts beat and the hair on the back of their necks stand up. Maybe Teflon will sell in '92.