Governor Andrew Cuomo has been asked about running for president in 2016 almost since the day he was sworn in. Whenever the question came up Cuomo quickly shrugged it off with some variation of “I’m focused on the job I have now.” Until yesterday, when the governor repeated that he’s concentrating on his day job, but was downright chatty on the subject. “I’ve seen this movie before,” he said. “I know how it turns out. It’s fascinating.”
He went on, for more than three minutes:
The speculation is flattering … On the other hand, it can be totally distracting … Once you start saying let’s start talking political, my own politics, my own aspirations, it can become not just distracting in that it takes time, but can become confusing and frustrating and is this now a political agenda or a governmental agenda? So it’s very important to me to honor my word to the people of this state and to preserve my relationship with the people of this state and what I am doing is about making this state the best state I can make it and being the best governor I can be, regardless of politics … that is really, really where I am in my heart. And that’s where I’m going to stay. I’m not going to allow myself to be pushed politically.
Fascinating is indeed the right word. There’s the family psychodrama: Musings about Governor Mario Cuomo’s presidential prospects, and Mario’s prolonged indecision, undermined his father’s reputation and ability to govern. There’s the endearing plea to be taken at face value, as opposed to the media image of Andrew Cuomo as a calculating politician, and the riveting demonstration of Cuomo’s mind at work, as he turns a problem around and teases out the analysis from every angle.
Cuomo is also speaking to multiple audiences. Keeping his eye on the Albany ball has indeed been a fundamental part of his success in dealing with the state legislature, and in propelling his public-poll numbers into the stratosphere. Cuomo sincerely wants to maintain his attention on fracking and casinos and the minimum wage: He not only likes dealing with this stuff, he knows that getting done what he wants in New York is easier if his personal ambitions aren’t dominating the discussion.
Which isn’t to say Cuomo has no larger ambitions. Those are only helped by building a solid track record as governor and an image as one who is above partisanship. Cuomo also knows very well that the political class is fixated on his larger ambitions. So acknowledging the presidential elephant in the room doesn’t chase the pachyderm away: It makes the beast even bigger, particularly at a time when the loudest chatter is about Hillary Clinton running in 2016. The secretary of state herself joked about it Wednesday night at Lincoln Center.
Here’s where the dance gets really tricky. Cuomo worked for Bill Clinton as HUD secretary, and regularly goes out of his way to praise the former president as a political mentor. The governor has genuine professional admiration and personal affection for Bill Clinton. Yet his compliments could also be read as an attempt to get ahead of talk of a Cuomo-Hillary “civil war” in 2016, and as a signal to Clinton loyalists and donors that Cuomo is a worthy heir if Hillary stays out of the electoral fray. Or maybe as a warning that Cuomo won’t defer if she jumps in.
Will Hillary run? Will Cuomo run? Will Cuomo not run if she does? Neither of them know, and neither do we. But there are four years to fill with overinterpretation and speculation, and Andrew Cuomo isn’t going to be a bystander. Yesterday the governor simultaneously declared himself above long-range petty political maneuvering — and kept his name very much in the conversation.