But Cuomo on TV is not Cuomo in real life. The real Cuomo, while reveling in his newfound fame, was leading an administration that covered up deaths that followed his order to move elderly hospital patients with covid-19 into nursing homes — and continuing a years-long pattern of mismanagement and abuse that has lately precipitated multiple accusations of sexual misconduct and reports that he and his staff tried to silence and threaten critics.
What’s becoming clearer and clearer now is that Trump and Cuomo are not actually that dissimilar, except in the sense that Cuomo actually likes his job and understands the nuances of how government works. They’re both bullies who manage by abuse and coercion, they’re constantly competing with their late fathers (apparitions who hang over every decision they make), and narcissism makes it impossible for either of them to summon the introspection and empathy required to evolve as humans and as elected officials or apologize in any sincere way for mistakes. They both routinely lie — though Cuomo does it instrumentally when it serves his cause, and Trump does it reflexively, maybe compulsively. And they share another important commonality: an understanding that elected officials can mask prolonged and egregious incompetence by projecting a public image of immunity to the uncertainty everyone else feels, and a lack of fear of the things that would rationally terrify anyone else.
The ability to project this kind of public image is an advantage in politics, but it has nothing to do with being able to govern. Cuomo has always been a thin-skinned tyrant who spends more time plotting revenge against anyone who gets in his way than he does thinking about public policy. One of my colleagues refers to him as a kind of malevolent artificial intelligence whose knee-jerk reaction to the advancement of even policies he should nominally support is to threaten vetoes and roadblocks in hopes of extracting leverage from the policy’s sponsors — a simple algorithmic response designed only to increase Cuomo’s power.
My firm does political messaging and polling for Democrats, and we’ve worked with many people on the receiving end of Cuomo’s ire, including No IDC New York, which represented primary challengers to a Cuomo-friendly coalition of Democrats who were caucusing with Republicans and includes state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D), who’s been an outspoken Cuomo critic since defeating an incumbent in a 2018 primary. I also co-hosted a fundraiser for Cuomo challenger Zephyr Teachout and her then-running mate, new Biden economic adviser Tim Wu, when she ran against Cuomo in 2014. But to be clear: I don’t think Cuomo is a bad governor because I’ve worked with people he perceives as his antagonists; I’ve worked with people he perceives as his antagonists because I believe he’s a bad governor.
The national love for Cuomo last spring demonstrated, in part, that it’s hard for people to evaluate gubernatorial competence without the rigorous scrutiny of journalists who are in a position to report on what happens behind the scenes. A lot of governing happens behind closed doors, and voters don’t typically have the relationship with state government officials that they do with more local politicians, like their city council members. Legislative processes are often opaque and complex, and this is particularly true in Albany, where arcane rules intentionally undermine transparency.
In New York, Cuomo’s ability to ensconce himself in Albany away from the prying eyes of New York City residents, who comprise nearly half the state’s population, is particularly an advantage. His work to rigorously manage his own public appearances has also been useful for him: He avoids the kind of spontaneous interactions with people that won him a reputation as a terrible retail politician, thanks to his propensity to behave inappropriately and say offensive things when unscripted. Even his own staffers acknowledge that he’s not exactly a people person (a former aide characterized him as “born for social distancing”) and have an incentive to keep his public appearances tightly circumscribed, lest the real Cuomo emerge and force them to deal with the messy process of continually extracting his foot from his mouth.
The result is that up to now, Cuomo’s gubernatorial competency has mostly been evaluated in an impressionistic way, facilitated largely by cameras in the form of TV spots and photo-ops. Cuomo understands this and measures his success in the annual State of the State report he’s obsessed with, which offers the public an assortment of benchmarks and bullet point-friendly accomplishments, a document designed explicitly for media consumption. When you think of governing only in terms of being able to deliver the optics of success without the substance (which doesn’t always provide convenient public metrics), you can take a simple approach that doesn’t involve much governing at all: You simply aggregate the positive accomplishments of others and take credit for them, and fudge the numbers here and there.
Cuomo is a Democrat, but this is essentially the Republican playbook now: Tell the public you’re doing one thing while doing the opposite privately, assuming that voters don’t actually pay close enough attention to notice the discrepancy. If you want to see this action, take a look at all of the Republicans who voted against the $1.9 trillion stimulus package taking credit for helping Americans on Twitter, like Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who celebrated aid for restaurants even though he voted against the legislation.
The Trump administration practiced this in an extreme way, making up metrics out of whole cloth (such as Trump’s false claim that “85 percent of the people wearing masks catch the virus” to explain why he wouldn’t push mask-wearing) and insisting that things accomplished despite them (vaccine development, any upward movements in the Dow, the passage of any legislation that people like but Trump didn’t support) were their own doing. To be fair, politics has always been partly about managing optics and credit-mongering, and people do expect that as a class, politicians sometimes lie. But an administration-wide culture that consists mostly or entirely of these things and fails to competently execute the duties of government is a nihilistic politics of performance with no underlying values. It’s an abdication of government, not a formulation of it.
Trump and Cuomo both also required enablers: people who look the other way, especially when the doctored optics also benefit them. Plenty of people tolerate Cuomo’s abuses because there might be an opportunity to be on the winning side of his transactions; others shrug at his interpersonal conduct, which they characterize as his “my way approach” or dismiss as his New York “tough guy” routine (a New York cliche if there ever was one), without acknowledging the implications for his style of governance.
But now, the enablers are melting away from Cuomo, as some of them have from Trump now that he’s out of office and the subject of several investigations. As is often the case with abusive personalities who persist for years because people are afraid of them, Cuomo is being exposed now because a handful of his victims have bravely spoken up and emboldened other people who have suffered harm to go public, too. He’s been more intensely scrutinized because of his higher public profile, and that scrutiny has resulted in a cataloguing of corruptions — including, but not limited to, withholding covid-19 death data — that would have been easier for him to hide before. Cuomo got the prominent attention he’s long craved: a national spotlight that satisfied his ego and hinted at greater ambitions and a legacy that could be bigger than his father’s. But those exciting bright lights also expose flaws. On a smaller stage, Cuomo might have been able to contain the damage the way he always has — a combination of obfuscation, threats and misdirection. But a much larger audience is paying attention now. And there just aren’t enough hours in the gubernatorial work day to threaten everyone.