Governor Andrew Cuomo is performing what he calls his Toto act. He’s played the part all over New York State, relentlessly, since January, traveling from Amherst to Binghamton to Watertown. Today he is on Long Island, in Patchogue, at St. Joseph’s College. The audience on a winter Wednesday morning is roughly 200 professors, students, and local retirees. Cuomo opens with a joke about arriving late this morning and being confronted by a nun—triggering pangs of nostalgic guilt from his own years in parochial school. Then it’s on to his beloved slideshow of budget horrors: a $10 billion state deficit! Medicaid spending scheduled to increase by an unsustainable 13 percent! Public-school bureaucrats making $300,000 salaries—even more than New York pays its governor!
But it’s all a setup for the moment when Cuomo-Toto pulls back the curtain on what he portrays as an Oz-ian fraud. Scary as the state’s budget numbers may be, he says, what’s worse is that they’re all a sham. An illusion foisted on the unsuspecting citizenry by craven special interests and their corrupt enablers, career Albany politicians. The two groups have conspired to enact into law automatic “escalators” that propel state spending ever upward, regardless of prevailing economic conditions, failures to deliver services, or common sense. “Even the way the Albany budget is described is deceiving,” Cuomo says, his voice rising. “When they talk about cutting the budget, a cut is defined as anything less than the anticipated growth. So anything less than the 13 percent increase is called a cut! All these years when you’ve been hearing they cut the state budget, you thought cut meant cut. Silly you! Why would you think cut means cut? Cut meant they didn’t have as large an increase as they thought they were going to have!”
At this there are audible gasps from the crowd. The budget story Cuomo tells—about how the insiders have been fooling the public, and how he’s going to put a stop to it—is skillfully crafted, entertainingly performed, and irresistibly compelling. Best of all, it’s true. Mostly.
It’s not a secret that the states are a mess. All over the country, the collision of decades of expansive social programs, federal tax cuts for the richest, and the aftermath of the global financial slide has produced oceans of budgetary red ink. Governors, unlike Congress and the president, are legally required to balance their ledgers each year. The drama is playing out in a variety of ways across the national stage. In Wisconsin, Republican Scott Walker has tried to smash the public-sector unions; protesters flooded Madison while the state’s Democratic senators fled to Illinois. In New Jersey, Chris Christie has used ridicule and threats against the same targets, making him a conservative darling and a YouTube star. Out in California, Democrat Jerry Brown has tried a more cerebral, compromising approach, to little effect.
On Sunday, Andrew Cuomo staked his claim to a new Democratic path, between confrontation and capitulation, left and right: progressive austerity, achieved through equal parts brute force and seduction, bringing business, labor, and politicians together to work it out semi-peacefully. The budget deal announced yesterday is an enormous political victory for New York’s governor, the product of a brilliantly played first 100 days in office. “Like Nixon and Johnson, Andrew is always gaming everything. And he’s very good at it,” says a New York party leader. “He has figured out how to turn his electoral victory, which he’s claiming is a mandate, and his popularity to keep people off balance in Albany.” The result is a new budget that reduces year-to-year state expenditures for the first time in more than a decade, and does so almost entirely on Cuomo’s terms. He worked the angles right up until stepping to the press-conference microphone, gaining Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s agreement by withdrawing a proposal to cap medical-malpractice awards—then claiming that the proposal was a head fake all along to gain passage of deep cuts to Medicaid spending.
But even though crucial horsetrading was done in the final hours, Cuomo had spent months—years, really—constructing the conditions to make the larger deal happen, backing the Legislature into a corner where it had to choose between helping to write a painful budget now or helplessly watch Cuomo dictate a more painful budget next week. The governor has used the full arsenal of weapons—from crowd-stirring speeches to leaks to friendly reporters to appeals to patriotism to ruthless intimidation—in an artful, coordinated assault unlike anything modern Albany has experienced. Lately Cuomo has been lucky as well as good: The full-court press by Mike Bloomberg to tear up teacher-layoff rules has pushed a traditional adversary, the city’s teachers union, into Cuomo’s corner. Revolutions in the Middle East and a nuclear tragedy in the Far East have gobbled up media space that in normal years would have been devoted to exploring how Cuomo’s budget cuts could hurt senior citizens and poor kids.
Instead, the governor’s poll numbers have soared, and with the state’s April 1 budget deadline looming, Cuomo has artfully crafted two endgames in which he wins either way. Assuming the Legislature votes its formal approval this week, Cuomo can take credit for a rare on-time, dramatically slimmed-down budget achieved through even rarer cooperation. If negotiations had stalled, Cuomo could have imposed his own budget through emergency spending bills and blamed the stubborn Legislature for shutting down state government. Completing the deal the nicer way robs Cuomo of a melodramatic finale, but he’s nevertheless basking in positive headlines. “Andrew wants to make a splash, and he wants to be strong, and he’s getting praised on Morning Joe. They love him,” a Democratic ally says. “And that’s what gets him going, the national media attention.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the budget deal announced by Andrew Cuomo on Sunday, March 27.