MARIO CUOMO 1932 - 2015

The politics that died with Mario Cuomo

Mario Cuomo delivers his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention on July 16,  1984
Mario Cuomo delivers his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention on July 16, 1984
Image: AP Photo
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More than any other politician in recent memory, Mario Cuomo spent a lot of time talking publicly about death, particularly his own. In 1987, Cuomo, who’d been a minor league baseball player in the early ‘50s, fantasized about dying while sliding into home plate, to culminate an inside-the-park home run. “That’s it!” he said, in a conversation captured by Joe Klein. “That would be the way to go.”

The gap between that poetic demise and the prosaic home setting where he died yesterday was emblematic for Mario Cuomo. His ability to inspire liberals (especially white ones) with a New Deal, working-class vision of government was unparalleled for at least a generation. At the same time, his incomplete delivery meant that most conversations about him were about degrees of disappointment.

His landmark speech at the 1984 Democratic convention galvanized millions, with its call for a government that “ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute.” Yet it set voters up for the ultimate disappointment when, in late 1991, he passed up the opportunity to run for president.

Many have offered explanations for that infamous refusal, since the official version – he needed to work on the state budget – was so unsatisfying. There were multiple reasons, but it’s a sure bet that his opponents – even in the primaries – would have sensationalized his Mafia connections. Such slime would have been unfair, but not unfounded; many outer-borough Democrats in the ‘70s and ‘80s had taken money and support from union locals that were mob-infested. In Cuomo’s case, it had been public knowledge for years that a Gambino family mobster named Anthony Scotto had used union connections to illegally funnel $50,000 to his unsuccessful 1977 mayoral campaign.

Locally, this type of corruption generated little more than shrugs, but Cuomo knew well that a presidential campaign could focus mercilessly on it, and subject his family to extreme intrusion. At the time a Democratic political consultant fantasized with me over the type of television spot he’d run against Cuomo: A grainy shot of slain mobster Paul Castellano’s body, followed by one of Cuomo, and the tagline “Mario Cuomo: Didn’t he once say the Mafia doesn’t exist?”

After that, Cuomo’s decision to seek a fourth term in New York seemed anti-climactic. In previous elections the anemic state Republican Party had run opponents against him who wouldn’t even qualify for trivia questions (Pierre Rinfret, anyone?). But even for the most skilled politicians, fourth terms are unicorns, and Cuomo had at least two vulnerabilities that were hard to see from outside the state. One was crime; it’s a savory political irony that the man whose national reputation was established by rhetoric and symbolism was largely brought down by the death penalty, a strictly symbolic issue.

Opposition to capital punishment was a fundamental principle for Cuomo, informed by his Catholic faith as much as his respect for Constitutional law; unlike his longtime rival Ed Koch, Cuomo was unwilling to switch his position even when it clearly cost him votes. (And that’s all it was likely to cost him, or anyone: despite New York’s restoration of the death penalty after George Pataki beat Cuomo in 1994, no one was actually executed. The state’s highest court declared the law unconstitutional in 2004, and murder has declined significantly since.)

But the symbolism mattered: rightly or wrongly, voters demanded an immediate answer on crime, and weren’t satisfied with Cuomo’s. Cuomo built more prisons than any governor in New York’s history, which has been much referenced in the hours since his death, primarily by liberals who see this “accomplishment” as a betrayal or at least a colossal waste of money.

Cuomo’s second weakness was economic. The recession of the early ‘90s was nationally brief and relatively mild. But it hit upstate New York hard, and to an important extent recovery never really came. As in Rust Belt states a few hundred miles west, the upstate economy depended on industries – such as Eastman Kodak in Rochester – that were declining. Cuomo paid a lot of attention to economic development, but his policies couldn’t replace or revive what technology and globalization were destroying. In 1994, upstate voters dramatically abandoned him. One look at the 1994 electoral map tells the story: Cuomo lost every county outside New York City but one.

It’s easy to say that Cuomo’s death represents the end of a certain brand of Northeast liberalism, but that’s not quite accurate. The voters who elected Barack Obama twice, Bill de Blasio in high numbers, and have made the New England Congressional delegation almost exclusively Democratic are not obviously more conservative than those of the 1980s. Remember that if Cuomo’s 1984 convention speech represented a rhetorical high-water mark for liberalism, it was also the year that the Democratic Party lost 49 states in the presidential election.

What’s different is that so few people – including Democrats – still believe that government has the right solutions to economic malaise. Much of the country now feels like upstate New York felt 20 years ago: people can see signs of economic strength—record corporate profits, stock indices at all-time highs—but as if from a great distance. The prescriptions offered by Cuomo’s successors, from Obamacare to a minimum-wage hike, might in fact work but – like Cuomo’s prison-building – they feel reactive and diluted, even to their beneficiaries.

What’s missing is less Cuomo’s liberalism than the certainty that any “ism” provides the definitive path—the idea that being a steadfast proponent of the welfare state was as pure and effective as being steadfast opponent of the death penalty. Cuomo’s vision of a climactic inside-the-park home run has been replaced by Moneyball, a system that rewards the political equivalent of walks. It may win elections, but it’s lost the hearts of the fans.

In 1985, Cuomo observed, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” That era feels as if it died, too, with Obama’s first inaugural. These days, most campaigns seem, like so much of our society, militarized and factionalized, and governance, when it happens, more like a grinding war of attrition.