HOWARD MEGDAL: The election of Mario Cuomo would have meant nothing less than the intellectual rebuttal from liberalism needed after Ronald Reagan. Instead, when Cuomo failed to make the 1992 presidential run, conservatives had a 40-year reign in the presidential discourse.
And make no mistake about it: Mario Cuomo easily could have been the 42nd president of the United States. A plane waited to take him to New Hampshire to formally announce. Had he done so, when Bill Clinton faced Gennifer Flowers and the draft questions, Cuomo would have waltzed to the nomination. (It’s a lot easier to be the Comeback Kid when your opponents are Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown).
In the general election, Cuomo would have had the advantage Clinton had of facing George H.W. Bush, and with Bush’s main problem being a lack of touch for the problems of ordinary Americans, Cuomo’s ability to connect would have made for an even more lopsided result.
His strength at the point of getting the nomination probably would have even kept Ross Perot out of the race. Indeed, it was Clinton’s languishing in the 20s that allowed the room for Perot to enter. Think of Mike Bloomberg, 2008, who was arguably forced out of making a run by the strength of Obama coming out of the primaries.
What’s more, the Clinton staffers who helped get Clinton elected would have been working for… Cuomo. So The War Room would have likely stayed intact.
Eight years of Mario Cuomo would mean eight years of unapologetic liberalism. Instead of going at the Reagan legacy, Bill Clinton largely gave it bipartisan support, from his uttering “The Era of Big Government is over” to signing the Welfare Reform bill in 1996.
Interestingly, it was another Cuomo speech, one made in 1996, that helped keep me in the Democratic Party. Dismayed by welfare reform, I simply wondered if my party had any room for me. Cuomo addressed my concerns, made it clear that there were voices like the one I’d hoped would lead us still in the party.
To this day, I cringe at the thought that Mario Cuomo’s political career was ended by the mediocrity that is George Pataki.
But it never should have come to that. In 1994, Mario Cuomo should have been President of the United States.
AKIE BERMISS: Mario Cuomo became Governor of New York State in 1983. Several months later I was born. And for the first 11 years of my life — Cuomo was mayor. At the age of 12, puberty hit me like a ton of bricks — it was the end of an age of innocence. So I quite naturally associate Mario Cuomo with the warm and wonderful feeling of simplicity that is childhood. That’s not to say I didn’t have my share of complicated woes from ages 1 – 11 (it was the eighties and New York was basically New Jack City), but if there was one consistent goodness it was Cuomo at the helm of the state.
This also means I associate George Pataki with sweaty hair, pimples, and nocturnal emissions. Which is fair, I think.
That said, I can’t say I really know much about Mario Cuomo. He was a household name (like Ed Koch) and as I came into something like political awareness with the 1992 Presidential Campaign (in which I was a Ross Perot supporter — going to the lengths of even representing in a 4th grade mock debate), I was aware of a palpable sense from Democrats that Cuomo NOT running was a significant thing.
However, I have to take issue with Howard’s argument that a Cuomo campaign (and thus, possibly a Cuomo Presidency) would have been some sort of cure-all or panacea for the Democratic Party and/or America as a whole. Not to be fatalistic, but I think when historians look back on the 20th century they will view the last 40 (or 50) years as having been a downward trend for American politics and America’s stature in the world internationally. One could say we sort of peaked in the late 40s/early-50s after WWII (and the birth of the Boomers) and that the 60s was akin to one of those weird summer-like days you get at the end of September where flowers get fooled into blooming before the real on-set of Winter. In which case the latter half of the 20th century can be described as a Conservative/Republican epoch. Certainly if you ask a Republican when the heyday of the last century was they will probably say — for reasons I STILL cannot fathom — the 80s.
Of course, thinking in broader strokes, I view the eighties as the crystallization of everything that went wrong with the 1900s and a precursor to the dark age of the Bushes — where we slowly, but irrevocably, hit rock bottom.
So say what you will about Bill Clinton, he was basically trying to perform political alchemy as a southern Democrat in Washington. He invoked the memory of John F. Kennedy (if not quite the spirit) and the populist mediocrity of Ronald Reagan. And to his credit: he did a damned good job. I think Democrats we pleasant surprised by Clinton’s successful acquisition of the Presidency and willing to go with him off a cliff if it meant getting AWAY from Reagan and Bush.
Where does Cuomo fit in all of this? Well he’s sort of the odd man out. Like Daniel Patrick Moynihan — another New York politician much lauded in my household — he was the Democratic answer to the Republican monopoly on intelligence. For whatever reason — and another one that I, indeed, STILL cannot fathom — Republicans were thought of, by-and-large, as the party of intelligence and wisdom and Democrats were considered bombastic zealots who didn’t really know the first thing about governing. Cuomo was the fly in that ointment. He came off as smart, collected, and charismatic — if a bit too East Coast for the taste of some.
And so its easy to think that IF he’d run in ’91, he’d have turned the whole trend of the 40 years prior around. He’d have been the Democratic Golden Boy and bloodied the nose of any Republican with the audacity to attack him. But I think its worth noting that, pleasant a scenario as that may sound, its just terrifically unlikely to have been they case. I don’t believe, first of all, that Cuomo would’ve been electable on a national level in the early 90s. I think that Americans were still under the impression that the perfect Commander-in-Chief was another Reagan. Republicans wanted to Ronald Reagan to be their FDR; Democrats wanted someone to be their Ronald Reagan. It was a horrific mess. And reassuring as Cuomo is to us in this dystopian future we live in (post George W. Bush), he didn’t have that kind of political soft-and-fuzziness in the 90s.
And Clinton did.
So its fine to imagine what could’ve been. Or, indeed Howard: what should’ve been. But to do that, we’d have to ignore what was really going on in the larger picture. We are here now, because we were there than. Obama’s star is bright not only because he is, himself, a brilliant man — but because of the darkness from which we emerged on January 20th, 2009. Cuomo’s star is not diminished for his never having run for President, indeed, he remains one of the few examples of strong Democratic leadership we had as America was headed inexorably to its great stumbles of the aughties. For that, Mario, we shall not forget you.
Nor shall I ever forgive George Pataki for the things he did to my body.