Has the 1988 presidential campaign peaked too soon? It seemed that way, briefly, temptingly, when Vice President Bush and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) traded punches last week.
It was as though it were October four years hence at the height of the election.
Bush has been mostly engaged in weekly grovels to the right wing of his party. Last Friday it was a deep obeisance to Jerry Falwell. Next Friday, it's the ultra-conservative NCPAC. But he arose from his knees long enough at a New York state Conservative Party dinner to whack Cuomo for paroling a "cop killer" and to swing wildly at Cuomo's passionate defense of ethnics in politics.
Cuomo responded with a gibe: "There are few things more amusing . . . than watching moderate Republicans charging to the right in pursuit of greater glory."
They sounded like nominees and brought the welcome fantasy that the tedium of primaries, conventions and all other exhausting preliminaries had been telescoped, and the debate had been joined.
They would be striking rivals: Bush, the scion of privilege; Cuomo, the son of an immigrant owner of a grocery store; one an anxious conservative, the other a full-throated liberal. Cuomo loves a fight and pounces on anything that moves in print or in person. Bush hates a scrap. He has advanced by stiff-upper-lip performances of wretched party chores -- he was Nixon's Watergate Republican National Chairman.
Cuomo is bold and politically daring. Bush is careful and cautious.
Bush claims three home states, Massachusetts where he was born, Connecticut where he grew up and Texas where he chose to live. Some people think he has an identity crisis in his philosophy. He ran as "a moderate" against Reagan in 1980, but has since proclaimed himself the conservatives' conservative. Cuomo has as sharp a profile as any politician in the country. He is an unmistakable, undiluted New Yorker -- complete with the accent, the edginess, the ready answer.
Bush's detractors call him a wimp; Cuomo's critics say he is a hater.
It is his regionalism and his philosophy that make Republican strategists insist that, after Teddy Kennedy, there is no Democrat they would rather run against.
Bush's loyalty to Reagan is slavish to some, but exemplary to Reaganites. It is for that reason, Republican strategists aver, that he gives Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), a favorite, strong competition on the right.
Certain Republicans regret that Bush, who really wanted to deliver a knock-out punch to Kemp at last week's conservative dinner, inadvertently elevated Cuomo to the instant status of Democratic front-runner. He made a hit with his audience, but some questioned the wisdom of doing a "Rocky IV" number on Cuomo about 32 months before the country actually gets to vote.
Most Republicans find Cuomo formidable. An immensely popular governor and superb orator, he has other off-putting traits. He is, for instance, an intellectual. While Bush gushes over the "moral vision" of Falwell, Cuomo is a devotee of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Bush's people tell themselves that Cuomo has no international lore, which is supposedly the vice president's strong suit, that he speaks intemperately. Cuomo precipitated himself into the presidential scene by taking issue with an Evans and Novak column in which a southern Democratic Party leader was quoted as indicating that a Catholic Italian American New Yorker was an iffy presidential prospect in the Sun Belt. Cuomo was so exercised that he said he might run for president just for spite. Bush would never say anything like that. He is the soul of caution and correctness, except when rattled, as he was after his debate with Geraldine A. Ferraro.
Bush is out for a "quick kill" in his quest for his party's nomination. Cuomo says he wants only to be reelected governor. But Bush needed to break his grovelling streak and Cuomo happened to make a handy punching bag. It was a nice change from jumping through hoops for the implacable right. Besides, Cuomo may have been on his mind. The governor went to Bush's current home state, Texas, and knocked them dead with a brilliant "only-in-America" speech about what it means to grow up poor and foreign in a big city. Cuomo writes his speeches and delivers them with a polished power Bush cannot match.
We now have a glimpse of the political future, and we see it works. Worse things could happen than an establishment politician gets pitted against a northeast street fighter, two men with only one thing in common: They were both baseball players.