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Cuomo’s downfall in two words: Hubris and hypocrisy

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced his resignation on Aug. 10 after a state investigation found he sexually harassed 11 women. (Video: Reuters)

When the story of Andrew M. Cuomo’s political career and downfall is written, two h-words should factor in extensively: hubris and hypocrisy.

Cuomo (D) announced Tuesday that he will resign as New York’s governor in two weeks. But he took care to do so shortly after his attorney sought to pick apart the report that led him to take this step. He also did so while maintaining his innocence. He claimed that these were a series of misunderstandings and that he could make that case compelling to New Yorkers, but that the chips were too stacked against him. The system is too rigged against Andrew Cuomo, it seems.

It was all rather rich for a whole host of reasons. But a couple leap to the top.

The first big problem with Cuomo’s defense — and what ultimately made it untenable, just not for the reasons he laid out — was the standard Cuomo set for himself.

On Tuesday he suggested, as he has before, that he was a victim of generational and cultural differences.

“In my mind, I’ve never crossed the line with anyone, but I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn,” Cuomo said. “There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate, and I should have no excuses.”

And yet he did make excuses — in the very same sentence. Also left unsaid: the very large role Cuomo played in redrawing those very lines.

After N.Y. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced his resignation on Aug. 10, lawmakers in Albany and Kingston looked to the future. (Video: Lee Powell, Zoeann Murphy, Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey detailed this better than anybody over the weekend. Leading their story was a telling anecdote from 2019. Cuomo had just signed a workplace anti-discrimination bill, which he said was needed to combat an “ongoing, persistent culture” of abuse. The next day, he asked a female state trooper why she didn’t wear a dress. It was part of what the woman described as a clear and concerted harassment campaign against her, which the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) found to be credible.

But Cuomo’s efforts to claim the moral high ground on this issue and his participation in setting the new standards dated back years before then. To wit:

  • In 2013, he introduced a Women’s Equality Act proposal that included banning “sexual harassment in every workplace.”
  • Later that year, he suggested the resignations and possible expulsions of two state legislators who had been accused of sexual misconduct.
  • In January 2018, he tweeted that “2017 brought a long overdue reckoning where the pervasive poison of workplace sexual harassment was exposed by brave women and men who said this ends now.”
  • In March 2018, he said: “We are leading the way forward with the nation’s most comprehensive reform package. This behavior must end.”
  • In May 2018, he called for the resignation of then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) over allegations that Schneiderman choked and hit women. “My personal opinion is that, given the damning pattern of facts and corroboration laid out … I do not believe it is possible for Eric Schneiderman to continue to serve as attorney general,” Cuomo said.

Schneiderman, too, professed his innocence, claiming these were misunderstandings resulting from role-playing. But Cuomo called for his resignation based upon media reports — far less than the official government report that undid Cuomo.

We knew back in March that some of the early accusations against Cuomo involved conduct that allegedly occurred in the times between these statements — as early as 2016 — but it turned out we didn’t know the half of it. One would think that someone who hailed these issues as being of the utmost importance would take care to avoid stepping over the line himself. But Cuomo — even by his own admission — wasn’t nearly careful enough. He professes to be shocked that the culture around sexual harassment has passed him by, even as he took a lead role in shepherding it into its new era.

Reading James’s report, it’s virtually impossible to truly dismiss these as a series of misunderstandings by an old guy who didn’t know better. But even if that were feasible, it’s got to rank as one of the biggest blunders in modern politics to open yourself up to such things while pitching yourself as a leader against workplace sexual discrimination against women.

The second really irreconcilable aspect of Cuomo’s defense is his suggestion that he just can’t win — that he could beat this if the process were fair, but that the process isn’t fair. Cuomo cited an environment in which even a logical explanation of his actions wouldn’t carry the day.

“If I could communicate the facts through the frenzy, New Yorkers would understand,” Cuomo said. “I believe that.”

But he added, “The political environment is too hot, and it’s too reactionary for that now, and it’s unfortunate.”

Again, it’s perhaps something certain people will believe — that Cuomo could exonerate himself if only things were fair. The entire Democratic establishment that runs New York has never been hugely fond of him, and it has now completely turned against him.

But this is also someone who, more than most any modern politician, had perfected the game of bare-knuckle politics. If leadership is a choice between affection and fear, his political M.O. was to err very much on the side of fear. It’s how he kept Democrats who didn’t like him in line.

In other words, if politics are too hot for his defense, he might want to look at his influence on the thermometer.

The report alleging his sexual harassment of 11 women is the latest example of this. It includes aides engaging in efforts to discredit and retaliate against a female accuser by using private and confidential files, and even an op-ed drafted by Cuomo that aides worried would constitute victim-shaming.

Separately, James’s office released text messages describing a brutal, dog-eat-dog workplace environment, as reported by The City:

“The odd part about these workplace stories … It’s not even close to what it was really like to work there day to day. … It was so much worse,” [aide Josh] Vlasto said in a series of messages the AG’s office released as part of evidence.
He indicated that the culture of the second floor, where Cuomo has his office, included “abuse and mind games.”

The combined picture is one in which Cuomo was undone by exactly the things he perpetuated and furthered, and in perhaps unsurprisingly spectacular fashion.

Politicians are no strangers to hypocrisy and hubris, but Cuomo was hoist with his own petard more than almost any politician in modern history.