The recent history of New York politicians on the national stage is not a happy one, to say the least. Rudy Giuliani was rightly propelled into prominence by his grace and his clearheaded leadership in the aftermath of September 11; those qualities eroded very quickly when America’s Mayor decided that the way to become president was to repeatedly snarl “Islamic terrorism!” Mike Bloomberg drew lavish, hopeful hype before shying away from a third-party presidential run in 2008. Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson, and Anthony Weiner grabbed their greatest national attention for all the wrong reasons. Now comes Andrew Cuomo.
The still-new governor is off to an astounding political start. Not only did he deliver a rare on-time budget, but also one that closed a $10 billion deficit without causing obvious chaos. Next he imposed a property-tax cap, tightened government-ethics rules, and legalized same-sex marriage, all in conjunction with the usually mind-bendingly dysfunctional State Legislature. More important, of course, are the actual effects of Cuomo’s work, which won’t be apparent for some months and could, without an economic turnaround, be especially harsh on the state’s middle class and poor. But all those messy details aren’t why Cuomo has exploded on the national scene. Gay marriage made him a progressive pinup, and it’s an achievement worthy of coast-to-coast headlines, even if it’s a social-issue victory that’s of only modest importance to New York’s future.
Andrewmania has erupted without overt help from its subject. Cuomo has turned down invitations from the cable shows and network Sunday shows and from Democratic groups around the country, which naturally makes him an object of even greater desirability in political circles. Certainly Cuomo has been busy in Albany, but at times the governor’s determination to appear focused only on his job borders on the comical: He hasn’t set foot outside the state since he was sworn in six months ago. He has no vacation scheduled this summer, not even a jaunt to the Adirondacks. “He’s doing it exactly right,” says Howard Dean, who knows a thing or two about the meteoric rise and fall of northeastern Democratic governors on the national scene. “Andrew is very smart to keep doing his job, stay off those shows, and not run around the country making speeches. The Republican governors in Florida and New Jersey and Wisconsin have done that, and their poll numbers are now in the thirties or forties.”
Which hasn’t stopped the feverish speculation that Cuomo is now the leading Democratic presidential contender in 2016. One immediate consequence is that it adds a wrinkle to the governor’s relationship with the current president. The two Democrats get along just fine and have multiple political friends in common, including Obama pollster Joel Benenson, whom Cuomo occasionally chats with by phone. Yet the gay-marriage win launched a wave of stories and opinion columns holding up Cuomo as everything that Obama is not—a man of principle! An executive who can bend a hostile legislature to his will! Never mind that Cuomo’s record isn’t close to classically progressive: He’s being used by the congenitally disenchanted left wing as a proxy to jab Obama for seeming weak.
Cuomo regularly cites Bill Clinton as his great political teacher. As in all things, however, Andrew’s model—and anti-model—in the New York–Washington dance is his father. Stirring speeches made Governor Mario Cuomo, a genuine progressive, into a national figure; he never came to terms with that role, or his feelings about running for president, turning him into Hamlet on the Hudson. The son is very much in touch with his own hunger. How long Andrew Cuomo can nurture that ambition while hiding it is the question.