Cuomo Searches for a New Political Center in the Post–De Blasio World

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

One week ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo had a front-row seat onstage at the ceremonial inauguration of Bill de Blasio as mayor, giving him an up-close view of the city's victorious liberals spiking the ball. Today, inside the grim bunker that is the state capitol's convention center, the air was nearly as chilly but the political dynamics were almost completely reversed. De Blasio was in the audience, sitting right behind Sandra Lee; Cuomo was the star speaker, and he delivered a different brand of progressivism.

There wasn't much new about Cuomo's core message: He's still socially liberal and fiscally moderate, just like he was three years ago when he was first elected governor. He did propose some interesting new particulars that reinforce his hybrid approach, including access to marijuana for medical uses and tax cuts for businesses. The consistency in Cuomo's philosophy has yielded substantive results. The state's budget has gone from deficit to surplus, the minimum wage is higher, gay marriage is legal, and New York's gun laws are tighter — that last one achieved at the cost of considerable political capital upstate.

What's different, and difficult, for Cuomo in 2014 is the context. He's running for reelection this year and trying to win by a headline-making margin. Staying firmly in the middle makes sense given that the statewide electorate is more conservative than the city's — but Cuomo will be running just as his national party and his local Democratic colleagues move to the left, with his old pal De Blasio leading the parade. The new mayor's push for a tax increase on the city's wealthy to pay for education programs exemplifies what's tricky for the governor: It's a challenge to Cuomo's centrism, which has been founded on keeping economic and social engineering separate. De Blasio, walking the hallways of the state senate and assembly before the speech, was greeted as a freshly minted hero (and greeted by considerable relief — some Albany operatives were worried that De Blasio wouldn't wake up early enough for the morning pre-speech schmoozing). The governor didn't use the words income inequality in his hour-long speech today, but he's trying to find a way to accommodate the shift in the political winds while not alienating suburban voters, backing the goal of statewide pre-K without explaining exactly how it would be funded. For three years, Cuomo has been deft in striking a balance between cultural liberalism and economic responsibility, leaving him with strong poll numbers, though not beloved by the political class.

Today the governor announced New York would be taking control of the rebuilding of the city's airports away from the Port Authority — hours after Trafficgate exploded all over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, damaging his presidential ambitions. The timing was purely coincidental. But if Andrew Cuomo can continue to be both talented and lucky, his 2016 State of the State speech will be really interesting.