It’s been difficult to hear between the spasms of hate speech, but Paladino has at times offered a cogent critique of state government. And stranger still is that Cuomo often seems as if he were going out of his way to prove Paladino’s point about New York politics’ being a rigged game played by the same old insiders. One Saturday morning Cuomo checks the “Latino” box by arranging an hour-long meeting with current and former Hispanic elected officials in the East Village. The next week he’s on the front steps of a White Plains arena to accept an abortion-rights endorsement. Many of the “ordinary” women in pink T-shirts surrounding Cuomo were bused in the night before by Planned Parenthood. In between comes an endorsement by former mayor Ed Koch—who, in a universe far, far away, furiously accused a Mario Cuomo campaign of using gay slurs against him (an accusation always denied by Mario and Andrew). Now Koch can’t be more effusive about his old adversary Andrew. “I’m proud to call him friend,” Koch gushes. “His father was a great governor, and I believe there’s a certain nobility in carrying on that tradition.”
Cuomo prides himself on being more of a realist than his father, but he speaks of government with some of the same reverence, as if elected office were a higher calling instead of simply a means to deliver services. “I work very hard not to demean politics, not to degrade politics,” he says. Last summer, Cuomo talked at great length about rallying ordinary citizens to his side by collecting “pledges” of support for five core ideas, including ethics reform and a property-tax cap. His theory: When he arrives in Albany as governor in January, Cuomo can show state legislators all the pledges he’s amassed in their district, and they’ll have no choice but to heed the wishes of their constituents. Yes, it was a corny idea at best, and a gimmick at worst. But at least it was a gesture toward substance and participatory democracy. Talk of the pledges has disappeared this fall; instead, Cuomo has retreated to the time-honored interest-group panderfest. And his “New NY Agenda” runs hundreds of pages while nimbly avoiding specific, painful budget commitments.
No doubt the Rose Garden strategy is the right one to get him elected. Paladino has also done him a favor: By lobbing unsupported allegations about Cuomo’s private life, he’s made the calculating Cuomo look sympathetic. But there’s a cost to playing it safe. Cuomo is missing out on the opportunity to address the pervasive anxiety in New York’s electorate and make a principled emotional connection with the politically disaffected. He could have conducted town-hall meetings across the state, or run an imaginative series of TV ads laying out his ideas, or wangled truly meaningful pledges—from some of the public-employee unions that have endorsed his candidacy—or even sat down for some extended on-the-record interviews.
Last week, Cuomo visited homeowners in Rockland and Nassau counties to talk up his property-tax-cap plan, the kind of thing that could eventually help him with suburban legislators. Yet even if he ramps up his informal interactions with voters as Election Day nears, the reality is that he’s the ultimate insider. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He knows how the capital works, which backs to scratch, and where bodies are buried. Andrew Cuomo didn’t defeat Andrew Cuomo this fall—but he should know that next year he can’t defeat Albany by playing it safe.