Cuomo is generating 2016 presidential speculation even while turning down national media appearances, smartly appearing to dial down his ambitions by staying focused on his own backyard. He’s letting Chris Christie be this year’s fad while playing the long game.
As the deadline approached, the new, humble Andrew seemed to be wrestling with the old, arrogant Andrew; last week, the governor appeared to rub the Legislature’s nose in his assumed victory, bluntly declaring he’d get what he wanted whether the Legislature delivered the budget on time or not. But even that gambit paid off: Legislative leaders fell all over themselves professing their eagerness to deliver an on-time budget. Cuomo reacted warily, determined to avoid being trapped into expensive last-minute compromises. When he restored a few hundred million dollars to education and social-service spending and agreed to take full responsibility for closing prisons, sparing legislators some local anger, the budget framework for the next two years was set.
Cuomo’s gamesmanship has put him in a position to pass a historic budget in incredibly difficult fiscal circumstances and to fundamentally shift the state’s finances. And where Chris Christie and Scott Walker have succeeded by humiliating their opponents, Cuomo has, up to now, succeeded by appearing to bring almost everyone into the tent—unions, hospitals, even Republicans—in a way that’s both Democratically touchy-feely and as hardheaded as anything his counterparts are putting forth. Cuomo’s austerity budget will probably feature $2.3 billion in cuts to Medicaid and $1.5 billion to education—and be adopted with the support of many of the very people whose budgets are being hacked. “It’s like catering your own funeral,” one operative says. It may also be a road map for Democratic success elsewhere—if one big question can be answered, that is: Are we sure “progressive austerity” is not an oxymoron?
Cuomo has been helped immeasurably by fortunate timing, arriving at a moment when the state’s finances are in undeniable shambles; labor unions, nationally and locally, are on the defensive; and the State Legislature, after a truly execrable run of scandals and squabbling, is held in contempt by New York’s voters. But Cuomo has never been accused of passivity, and he began rearranging the Albany playing field to his advantage long before he was elected governor. Last spring, while still state attorney general, he quietly encouraged Governor David Paterson to use a parliamentary maneuver known as “extender” bills to force his spending choices on the Legislature. Paterson, having given up hope of running for governor, had nothing to lose, and Cuomo had plenty to gain from establishing a precedent, even though Paterson’s use of the emergency appropriations method allowed the Legislature room to bargain. “That’s the genius of the guy,” a lobbyist who knows Cuomo well says. “He was envisioning how he would do things, and he was using Paterson as a test case. In many respects, there’s no one out there better at triangulating.”
Cuomo continued laying his foundation during the campaign, establishing the broad budget themes he’d pursue as governor: no new taxes, a cap on property taxes, a downsizing of government programs. He assembled the support of business as well as private-sector labor groups. How enthusiastic they were didn’t matter; such broad support allowed Cuomo to assert that he had brought everyone together, a true coalition, all of them pledged to his platform. Trouncing hapless Carl Paladino in November made Cuomo the truest believer that “the people” back his policy choices.
He’s projected energy and confidence since taking over officially in January, which has helped push Cuomo’s public-approval numbers into the high seventies. Cuomo’s loudly professed amazement at built-in budget boosters was greeted with laughter by the Albany Establishment: Of course Cuomo, who’d been around state government much of his adult life, knew how the sausage got made. But, crucially, Cuomo’s shock went over much better with the public: His retailing of the budget sham played right into its perception of Albany as a rigged casino and positioned the new governor as the last honest man in town.