The pandemic is Cuomo’s Great Depression. Unlike our juvenile president, Cuomo has been clear, compassionate and inspiring these past weeks. He has taken the words of Franklin Roosevelt to heart (and to Twitter): “The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better, and the American people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder.”
In his daily news conferences, Cuomo doesn’t deflect responsibility, but rather accepts it: “If someone is unhappy, blame me.” Instead of making sweeping, silly statements, he’s hyper-specific on everything from the number of ventilators the state needs to the number of tests administered. And instead of scoring political points, or humoring free-market fundamentalists who argue that stabilizing the economy should be prioritized over saving lives, he is eloquent in his plain-spokenness. “My mother is not expendable and your mother is not expendable and our brothers and sisters are not expendable … we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.”
Cuomo has captured the nation’s attention. Millions of Democrats, and no doubt many independents, are asking why he is not the Democratic nominee for president. The answer lies in the contradictions that this remarkable politician has never been able to resolve.
Andrew Cuomo is, of course, the eldest son of the last great liberal governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. The high point of the elder Cuomo’s public standing was his magnificent 1984 speech at the Democratic National Convention. It was a last hurrah for postwar liberalism and the alliance between labor unions, liberal African Americans and progressive Catholics that had dominated American politics since the New Deal. And it preceded the transition to the Democratic Leadership Council’s (DLC) iron grip on the limits of the acceptable in Democratic Party politics.
Mario Cuomo did not accept the core commitment to austerity economics that defined the DLC, and, ultimately, he did not make it to the mountaintop of American politics. Some 30 years after that famous speech, investigative reporter Wayne Barrett suggested that Andrew Cuomo meet with several skeptical editors, including me. It was only then that I understood how much the son was defined, and defined himself, by and against the father. At his father’s funeral that same year, the younger recounted the elder Cuomo’s legacy: “The truth is he didn’t love the day-to-day management of government; the tedium and absurdity of the bureaucracy was mind-numbing for him. … At his core he was a philosopher and he was a poet, an advocate and a crusader.”
To be sure, Cuomo deeply admired his father, but he chose to be a different kind of leader. He’s a transactional leader who seems to enjoy the absurdity and the fights, and doesn’t mind the tedium if it leads to results. He prides himself on being a doer. He never adopted his father’s commitment to the Keynesian economic policies that defined modern liberal governance. Instead, Cuomo has favored a blunt view of neoliberalism which has tried, tirelessly, to persuade us that “entitlement” is a dirty word.
The current Cuomo moment is therefore contradictory. The nation rightly celebrates a politician who seems to be able to tell it like it is, to be empathetic and smart and competent all at the same time. How unusual! But within days, this same politician will unveil a monumental budget deal in Albany. Will he channel his father and ask the rich to dig deeper and pay more in taxes to help the state in its time of need? Or will he continue to accept the inequality that characterizes American society today and stand by his cuts to vital services such as Medicaid — not unlike Trump’s cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — that millions of New Yorkers depend on?
In 1937, when Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as president for the second time, having seen New York through the start of the Great Depression and then jump-started the nation’s recovery, the president said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
If Cuomo can find it within himself to embrace that fundamental belief, in word and deed, he will be the leader that the Democratic Party, and the nation, need.