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Why some liberals aren’t on board with Andrew Cuomo (and how it could matter)

No discussion about the 2016 presidential race would be complete without mentioning New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). His poll numbers are sky-high, and he presides over a populous state with a deep donor pool and the nation's largest media market. He's also the son of legendary former governor (and oft-talked about presidential candidate) Mario Cuomo.

While many Democrats would be thrilled with a Cuomo bid, there's emerging evidence that not everyone in the party would be so enthusiastic. Cuomo has attracted criticism from some liberal commentators,  most recently over his refusal to wade into a battle over party control of the New York state Senate.  

(Mike Groll/AP)

"This is the sort of thing that gets the No Labels and America Elects crowd all excited, but if you're looking for a successor to Obama who will be a strong Democrat who will fight for Democratic ideals and his or her party, don't be looking at Cuomo," wrote liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas this week on his website, Daily Kos. "Point to his record on marriage equality all you want. The only thing that 'he's with us more than he's against us' argument proves is that Cuomo is a worthy successor to the legacy of Joe Lieberman."

Fighting words, indeed. 

Moulitsas was reacting to the the power-sharing agreement that Republicans and some rogue Democrats recently struck in the New York state Senate. The Republican Conference and the five-member Independent Democratic Caucus announced a power sharing agreement under which its respective leaders would enjoy "joint and equal authority." MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes recently took Cuomo to task for not having done more to fight for a Democratic majority. And, as the coalition begun to take shape, the  governor's office called it "an internal legislative matter,” which also stoked frustration. 

The governor explained his outlook in a Thursday op-ed. "Rather than base my support on amorphous and often misleading political labels, shifting coalitions, or internal organizing concepts, I prefer to base my support – or lack thereof – on specific policy positions," Cuomo wrote, before elaborating on "progressive initiatives" he wants support for, including upping the minimum wage and reforming campaign finance regulations. 

Cuomo lashed both Republicans, who controlled the chamber from 1966-2009, and Democrats, who won it for the following two years, for dysfunction and missed opportunities. "Neither the Republican nor Democratic conferences come to this juncture with clean hands," wrote Cuomo. 

It might seem odd that Cuomo is coming under fire from the left. After all, this is the same governor who signed a historic measure approving gay marriage in 2011, and this year has pressed for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana

But the angst from the left isn't an entirely new development. In the summer of 2011, The Plum Line, a prominent liberal blog run by the Washington Post's Greg Sargent, wrote: "The irony of Cuomo as a progressive champion, though, is that until recently he was being praised most enthusiastically by conservatives. Liberals in New York were furious over his budget deal, which included property tax caps but cut funding for Medicaid and public education."

Cuomo is very popular in New York, and draws support from a broad slice of the Empire State electorate. Sixty-two percent of New York voters who described themselves as liberal to very liberal rated Cuomo's job as governor as good or excellent, while 54 percent of those who said they were conservative to very conservative said the same thing in an October Marist poll. 

Whether or not Cuomo's run-ins with some some liberal voices will hurt if him he runs for president in 2016 remains to be seen. Some Democrats don't anticipate it becoming an issue, if he decides to take the plunge.

"The left will say Andrew Cuomo is too far to the center. Well, they said that about a guy they said couldn't get elected from Arkansas," said veteran New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked for President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. 

Sheinkopf, who has been on the opposite side of Cuomo in several Democratic campaigns, but now works as an unpaid spokesman for state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D), who belongs to the Independent Democratic Caucus, said the governor made the right decision by not engaging in a fight over the balance of power in the state Senate.  "The dumb move would be to put himself in the middle of it," he said. 

Cuomo's professed pragmatic posture toward his state's Senate comes at a time of immense partisan gridlock in Washington. If the novel arrangement ends up working, and Cuomo is able to pass the measures he favors, he could point to it as an example of bipartisan success at a time when national lawmakers were fighting tooth and nail. 

That's a big if, though. And some remain skeptical anything can get done under the new legislative arrangement. If it doesn't work out, the liberal frustration with Cuomo could ramp up even even more in the coming years. 

Updated at 3:23 p.m. 

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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