Cecil’s reading of the landscape is important not just for Democratic Senate candidates this year, but because he’s likely to be on the short list to run Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, if she indeed runs. At this point she’s the prohibitive favorite to become the nominee—though that was true at the same point in the run-up to 2008, before most people saw Barack Obama coming. “I assume there will be a primary challenge from the left, for sure,” Howard Dean says—though he also says it won’t be by him: “There are a lot of pragmatic progressives, and I’m one of them, who are supporting her.” Dean campaigned for De Blasio last year, and he says that what happens at City Hall will have ramifications far beyond the city. “Two progressive mayors—Bill and Eric Garcetti, in Los Angeles—don’t make a landslide toward progressivism. But I do think progressivism in general is gaining the ascendancy in this country,” Dean says. “Bill has to be mayor first, and he has to do a good job, and I think he will. But what he does is very important to the progressive movement. The rap on the progressive movement—mostly from the Wall Street types—is they can’t run anything, they can’t balance the budget. That’s not true. We’ve done a much better job than the Republicans of balancing the budget. Look at Bill Clinton.”
Andrew Cuomo learned a great deal in the service of the Great Triangulator, and he is hardly the only Democrat who believes that talk of a drastic shift to the left is overstated, particularly considering that De Blasio’s “mandate” was delivered by a thin slice of the electorate. Cuomo genuinely respects De Blasio and wants him to succeed as mayor. But he has staked his governing approach and his political career on being a centrist, at least by New York standards, and for four years Cuomo has mostly been a welcome force for budgetary sanity. Now, though, he’s navigating a change in the political wind. “Jeff Klein was never thought of as lefty, but he’s pretending to be one now,” a Cuomo adviser says of the Democrat who has set himself up as a power broker in the State Senate. “Klein, De Blasio, Eric Schneiderman, and Shelly Silver being allied weirds out Cuomo. He wants to be Mr. Moderate, and these guys are pulling him down the path of the ultraliberal stuff.” Cuomo’s reaction is also, as with most everything involving the governor, tied to the psychodrama of being the son of Mario Cuomo, a man whose high-minded rhetoric made him a hero of the left; Andrew is determined to make his mark with deeds, not words. Cuomo’s camp scoffs at De Blasio’s moralizing lefty tone, the mayor’s talk of being on a “sacred mission.” “He acts as if income inequality is a higher purpose,” a Cuomo ally says. “ ‘We’re not talking about filling potholes. We’re talking about social justice.’ Bill’s been a pragmatist his whole career. You don’t really think he’s changed, right?”
The substance and politics of the next few months are crucial for the mayor. Resolving his pre-K battle with Cuomo will help define whether fighting for a tax increase on the wealthy is a good Democratic gambit. Yet it’s De Blasio’s high-stakes negotiations with labor unions that will be even more telling. Shifting city government’s values to the left won’t matter if De Blasio can’t get the dollars and cents right and ends up becoming a spendthrift captive of the old Democratic interest groups. But if De Blasio succeeds, his brand of progressivism will gain credibility, and the mayor will become a valued validator for liberals suspicious of HRC ’16. And if somehow Hillary doesn’t run, Cuomo could find his friendship with De Blasio especially useful.