Last winter, a Democratic legislator who is often mentioned as a presidential candidate visited BuzzFeed’s offices and talked frankly about how the party will approach the 2020 presidential election.
“There are two ways to run against Trump,” he reflected. “One is to say, 'Trump has opened this new kind of politics, and if we don't do what he does — the battlefield has changed, we need to compete on his terms.'
“And those are the people who say [that] your governor, ... Gov. Cuomo, is the only Democrat who's unscrupulous enough to out-Trump Trump.”
The Democrat went on to say he preferred the other path, a unifying campaign on the model of Obama’s in 2008. But he had spoken something bluntly that Democrats who are frankly afraid of the New York governor sometimes say in private: that what he has going for him is his utter ruthlessness. He is, at his best, Lyndon Johnson; at his worst, more like Nixon.
The legislator’s blunt reflections on Cuomo’s appeal came to mind this week because the New York governor is closing out his primary campaign with a kind of caricature of ham-fisted machine politics: sending a mailer out to Jewish voters smearing his progressive rival as an anti-Semite, and rushing to open a bridge that wasn’t quite ready to open.
I’ve covered Cuomo since his first campaign for governor in 2002, though never closely. He’s actually very little like Trump when it comes to rules and to the system itself: He’s never acted with disdain for the rules. When it comes to rules, he’s literal-minded. My first encounters with him came when he was playing just on this side of the campaign finance line; his encounters with reformers and prosecutors and regulators have always kept him just this side of the limits, with his foes ranting that he’s obviously violating the spirit of laws meant to prevent turning government into a political machine.
He was also, in that spirit, a pioneer in the sort of secure messaging that is now routine: In 2012, the Daily News revealed that he insisted on communicating with his staff via BlackBerry Messenger, which had the advantage of sending data from one device to another with no backup left on a corporate server for nosy investigators to find.
And Cuomo isn’t here to destroy the political system. He is, rather, the ultimate creature of the state’s sclerotic political system and its true master. Where Trump has struggled to master the political machinery of his office, Cuomo lives to use his to bend the state to his will. For his allies, his control of the levers of power can be immensely satisfying — even at times for the progressives and reformers now in rebellion against him.
I remember vividly when his hapless predecessor, David Paterson, was about to bring marriage to the floor of the Senate in 2009. I spoke the night before to a marriage equality campaigner who was preparing his victory speech. But Paterson hadn’t counted the votes, and nobody was scared of crossing him; it wasn’t even close when the measure failed.
Everyone is scared of Cuomo. A few years ago, I interviewed another powerful New York politician who, in passing, mentioned an earlier conflict with Cuomo. Half an hour after she left, she called to plead that a story not mention that she said anything about the conflict — for fear of antagonizing him again. Mayor Bill de Blasio has stayed neutral in the governor’s race because, as Nixon accurately said on AM to DM Monday, Cuomo is “notoriously vindictive.”
And Cuomo knows how to count votes. When he brought marriage to the floor in 2011, he did so with the votes of several senators who had voted against it in 2009. When the bill passed, it played widely as a moving moment in the state’s history; it was also an effective demonstration of raw political power. When other liberals deplored gun violence after the Newtown school shooting, Cuomo rammed through a bill a month later that expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons. He banned fracking, and he raised the minimum wage to $15. There’s something to marvel at there, shades of Caro’s Johnson.
Unlike Johnson, though, he has reserved those progressive shows of force for social issues that don’t require new taxes; his government has also sought to keep taxes down and avoid expensive projects that go beyond rewards to political allies, as in the case of the notorious Buffalo Billion. In an era of big progressive ambitions, there are limits to what you can do without raising taxes.
That’s the core of Cynthia Nixon’s critique: “He slashed taxes on the wealthiest, and he’s slashed services on everybody else. He’s lost $25 billion from state revenue.”
People around Cuomo have always acknowledged he’s thinking of running for president. No serious governor of New York doesn’t. And even as he says the only reason he wouldn’t serve a full third term as governor would be if “God strikes [him] dead,” it’s not unreasonable to think that — as ugly as this campaign looks for him now — certain signals would push him toward an early exit. If he wins against Nixon by an even greater margin than he did in 2014 — when he got 62% of the vote against Zephyr Teachout — that would be one signal. A big victory in November would be another.
And is that what the reform-minded, socialist-leaning Democratic Party of 2018 wants? A master operator of the system and dealmaker? Their own Trump — only you could see him being pretty good, scary good, at being president? It is hard to imagine, but you see why Cuomo might be thinking it.