The governor keeps pounding home the themes: He’s succeeding where Washington isn’t and Washington won’t. Forget the means; the ends will make a difference not just for today but for eternity. This is the case great, intimidating politicians often make, and it can’t easily be dismissed. “That gun bill will save lives! That marriage-equality bill, millions of people were affected!” Cuomo shouts to me over the phone as he rides down the Thruway one night. “If I drop dead and they put me in a box tonight, that marriage-equality bill and that gun bill, those will have such a profound impact for generations!” Not that Cuomo intends to depart the scene anytime soon. Just the opposite: Slowly but surely, the plan is for him to become nationally prominent. There’s just one big problem, and she’s currently living in Chappaqua.
The joke began circulating just after the news of Hillary Clinton’s concussion and blood clot broke: “Do you think Andrew tripped Hillary?” one New York political leader asked. He was not alone in finding dark humor in the moment, seeing it as an early preview of the complicated political jousting that will play out between now and 2016. Clinton would probably knock Cuomo out of the Democratic field if she decides to run for president again. “She has Andrew totally boxed in, and it’s got to drive him crazy,” one of the party’s veteran fund-raisers says. “If she runs, she’s the instant favorite and she would dry up all the New York money. He has no choice but to wait to see what she does.” At 55, Cuomo is certainly young enough to wait until 2020 or 2024; sustaining his popularity that long is harder to imagine.
Cuomo’s presidential ambitions have been assumed since he was a boyish lieutenant to his father. As governor, he’s strenuously avoided 2016 talk. “My strength, my everything, is my relationship with the people of the state,” Cuomo says. “That relationship has to stay simple and pure. And they have to know that I am their guy, working for them. And that’s who they think I am. And, by the way, that’s who I am! Once you say, ‘Oh, by the way, I may be thinking of running for president’—oh, really? So you mean this is about you, and your career, and your ambition? Now, it’s not necessarily just about me. It’s about me but it’s also about you and what’s good for you, and maybe your political agenda is different than my agenda.” As much as Cuomo vehemently disclaims any thinking about a presidential run, he’s avidly attentive to how his current moves fit into longer-term political trends. His longtime adviser Drew Zambelli analyzes poll data and other information to try to figure out where the electorate will be on issues in three years or five years. Cuomo believes that the popularity hit he’s taking at the moment, mostly with upstate Republicans over gun control, is worth it for the sake of good policy—and that he’s in sync with the opinions of younger voters.
Cuomo’s emphasis, publicly, on running the state is deeply entwined with his compulsion not to repeat his father’s mistakes. Halfway through his own first term, Mario Cuomo became a national figure by delivering a poetic, full-throated defense of liberalism in the keynote address of the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Those soaring eight minutes were among the best rhetorical performances ever by a politician, and they will forever be a proud highlight of Mario Cuomo’s career. Yet Andrew Cuomo views the ’84 convention speech as the biggest political mistake his father ever made. “It made Mario a possible presidential contender,” an Andrew intimate says. “Andrew believes that once that happens, it changes your relationship with the voters. It’s why he is so cautious about anything presidential.”
So last fall, at the very same juncture in his own first term as governor, Cuomo made a spectacle of not making a spectacle. He jetted to the 2012 convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, one morning, gave a speech to the New York State delegation in a tent set up in a parking lot, then immediately left town, turning down invitations to be introduced to meet national fund-raisers. Still, the Charlotte cameo had a weirdly paradoxical effect: By trying to minimize chatter that he was flirting with a presidential run, Cuomo actually increased the amount of talk that he’s scheming to run.
In fact, even at this stage, Cuomo is a plausible presidential contender. A strong progressive record and a reputation for breaking political logjams are effective credentials these days. That’s why the recent spasm of Albany scandals could be so damaging to Cuomo. He has nothing to do with the arrests of State Senator Malcolm Smith and State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson. But Cuomo has staked much of his image—first as attorney general, now as governor—on his claims that he’s cleaning up Albany and making it reputable and functional again. The revival of corruption allegations stains Cuomo, especially nationally, where the nuances of who allegedly took what money in which bathroom stall are secondary to the perception of same-old-Albany ugliness.