And all these machinations make some people a bit queasy. Even supporters wonder whether Cuomo will screw up all his good work by trying to be too clever—an old Cuomo problem. “I don’t think Andrew is dishonest,” a longtime associate says. “I think he creates his own realities, and he thinks that something happened that didn’t happen, and he thinks there was an understanding that really wasn’t an understanding.”
He’s been careful not to let the old Andrew emerge, but sometimes he can’t help it. The day after the MRT unveiled its plan, Cuomo took a victory lap on Dicker’s radio show. “I remember a radio reporter who’s also a reporter for the Post who said the Medicaid-redesign team is a test for the new governor and it may very well disintegrate,” Cuomo said, sounding like his chesty former self.
“Wasn’t that off-the-record?” Dicker joked.
“I remember hearing that on the radio. I don’t remember who said it,” Cuomo said.
“I admit it, I was wrong on that,” Dicker replied.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I was wrong on that,” Dicker said, starting to sound irritated. “Touché.”
“I’m sorry, I have a bad connection. What did you say? What? I’m sorry.” Cuomo chuckled. His laugh is a thing of art, and a weapon: He starts lightly, then deepens the tone, then the heh-heh-hehs continue long past the point of mirth, until he’s the only one laughing and the sound becomes downright unnerving.
Whether the final budget deal is merely a triumph of politics or one of substance on other fronts will take time to discern. Cuomo counts himself a progressive, yet his claims for the boat-lifting abilities of private industry sound an awful lot like discredited trickle-down economics. The city should benefit from changes to the costly home-health-care system. But the city will take severe hits to education and social services, including a multimillion-dollar cut in state rental assistance to low-income families, which could jeopardize housing for thousands of families. “That’s the one that shocked me,” a city official says. “Given Cuomo’s good background in creating housing for the homeless, and the fact that it’s a constituency without political power, this just seems callous.”
“You should not underestimate how painful this budget is,” another Bloomberg aide says. “The education cuts are really rough. This is not a traditional Democrat’s budget. Maybe that’s what the moment requires. But the choices Cuomo is making are going to be pretty painful for working folks.”
Pulling off a balanced, shrunken budget while keeping his constituencies relatively happy would be an amazing feat. There are inherent contradictions with progressive austerity, and the governor may merely have delayed the moment when one interest group’s happiness means another’s misery. “Cuomo is orchestrating a big game of musical chairs,” one Albany insider says. “But only about half the players have chairs. How long can he keep the music playing?” Major obstacles remain. The property-tax cap doesn’t look as if it will be adopted, partly because Cuomo has yet to deliver on his vow to reduce the number of costly programs the state imposes on localities. Tackling New York’s gargantuan pension and health-care liabilities promises to be a nastier battle than the budget. Yet Cuomo’s current success is giving him the national profile he’s always craved. He soon could be bigger, in the most important ways, than Chris Christie. Much like the progressive austerity he’s pushing, it would be a remarkable and unlikely transformation for the famously prickly governor. But he believes in it. And that’s the first step.