Almost exactly one year ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo was being hailed as a progressive hero: He’d legalized gay marriage and raised taxes on the wealthy — unlike that breaker of liberal hearts, President Obama. Now Cuomo is being attacked from the left, blasted as a fake Democrat and a betrayer of sacred party values. What happened?
Not much, really. Cuomo wasn’t as far left as he appeared in 2011, and he isn’t as big a phony as he’s portrayed to be now. The other day Chris Hayes of MSNBC unleashed a smart and entertaining screed against Cuomo, accusing him of not pushing for a Democratic takeover of the State Senate. True enough. Yet Hayes skipped over some important local details. One of Cuomo’s sacrosanct goals is making state government look functional, and he’s decided, with good reason, that New York’s Senate Democrats aren’t reliable. Still, the ends matter as much as the appearance of function, at least sometimes: Cuomo backed several Senate Republicans running for reelection this fall because they’d helped pass gay marriage. Is that disloyalty, or principle?
New York’s left has long been suspicious of Cuomo, claiming he’s beholden only to his own ambitions. Yet the governor’s beliefs, particularly on social issues, would be considered borderline pinko in many parts of the country. What his current critics seem to have overlooked is that pragmatism has always been Cuomo’s main ideology. So to get the state’s budget balanced he was willing to use millions from the business community to challenge the entrenched Albany power of labor unions and social welfare lobbyists. Then, at the end of last year, with another deficit looming and pressure increasing to renew the state’s “millionaire’s tax,” Cuomo stepped in the other direction a bit, cutting rates for middle class residents and lifting them for the top brackets. He says he’s in favor of parts of the liberal platform — like raising the state’s minimum wage, reforming campaign finance laws, and decriminalizing marijuana — but Cuomo will move on those issues only when he knows he’s got the votes, and when he considers them a high priority.
This morning the Post’s Fred Dicker, on his radio show, asked Cuomo what he made of the Hayes polemic. “Why don’t we have a little discussion about an actual agenda, and issues, and progress, and what’s good for the people as opposed to just hyperpartisan rhetoric?” he said. The words were clear enough, but you needed to hear Cuomo’s voice to really get the message: He could barely contain his happiness. Being attacked now from the left means, to Cuomo, that he’s getting it exactly right, creating a New York brand of (Bill) Clintonian centrism that’s above partisanship and deeply political at the same time. Whether that formula would help or hurt Cuomo in a 2016 Democratic presidential primary — hey, he’s not even thinking about such things.