The gun safety package that passed the New York state legislature Tuesday does many things: tightens the state's assault weapons ban, beefs up background checks, and requires 5-year re-certifications of gun licenses, to name a few.
It also provides an incredibly clear example of how the state's governor and aspiring president, Andrew Cuomo, operates – as well as what motivates him.
More specifically, it reflects a seemingly superhuman mastery of legislative politics, a consuming political drive, and a pattern of trying to score points on the Democratic left — key to a primary — through so-called "cultural" issues, while operating as an economic moderate.
On the first count, we are now at the point where even Cuomo's detractors cannot deny that the man is a mastermind when it comes to managing the levers of New York state government to enact his goals. You may not agree with his choices, you may question his principles, but you cannot question the man's skill and intuition.
Explaining his boss's efficiency and ability to persuade, a top Cuomo aide once explained, "We operate at two speeds here: Get along and kill." And how Cuomo managed to achieve this latest unachievable triumph (in formerly dysfunctional Albany, no less) could be its own masters course in executive expertise.
The story involves leveraging his considerable popularity to encourage previously obdurate Republican lawmakers to align themselves with him for the purpose of their own survival. It entails pressuring a wobbly coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats "leading" the state senate to put forward a legislative package most majority members opposed, as a means to retain legitimacy. It includes cleverly announcing as his priorities those broad areas which he already thought he could get done.
And it ends with rushing forward a vote on the legislation (crafted behind closed doors) in the dead of night, without New York's mandatory three-day aging period — and before anyone can change his or her mind.
Some might say that the backwind of the Newtown tragedy helped push this particular legislative package over the finish line; but if that's your view, take a look at the issue of marriage equality instead.
New York's legislature had voted down a similar bill just two years prior to 2011's historic achievement. And again it was Cuomo displaying an uncanny knack to motivate individual legislators to do things they otherwise would not consider – by lining up gobs of money to support a PR campaign for the issue, bringing prominent conservatives into the fold for political cover for Republicans, and uniting the various disjointed gay rights groups under the same banner.
Whether this mastery of the process would be transferable to Washington, DC, where Cuomo also worked as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, remains to be seen. But for now in New York, it's a fact of life: a combination of deep, on-the-ground experience (he had served as a young, trusted aide during his father's gubernatorial reign) and once-in-a-generation, innate political intelligence.
Which brings us to the governor's ever-running, finely-tuned political antenna.
As some have mentioned, Cuomo surely could have acted on gun safety earlier in his career, working to, say, tighten the interpretation of the assault weapons ban as Attorney General, or push for reform in his first few years as governor; this wasn't a societal problem newly brought to attention last month. But Cuomo saw the news stories, seized on a political moment to score big time attention, and envisioned the headline he wanted on his resume.
When he declared his state would be — must be — the first to do something on guns post-Newtown (and would have "the toughest assault weapons in the nation"), this was less the passionate pronouncement of a lifelong gun safety crusader, than the move of a political chess prodigy.
Of course, such motivation isn't unique to Andrew Cuomo. Politicians often strive to leave no crisis unexploited, and others like Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley (and, of course, the White House) are also rushing to get something done on guns now.
Which is sort of the point: Any commentary suggesting that Cuomo's push for gun safety reform is "bold" misses the fact that there is little but political upside to this battle. Not only is Cuomo's stance currently the de facto position for Democratic presidential aspirants, but every statewide elected official in blue New York holds similar views on the issue. What passes for the opposition in Cuomo's state, much like the opposition to marriage equality, is weak and disorganized.
The governor is a canny political player who picks his targets carefully and aggressively — and an issue with significant national attention, massive support in his home state, and a lethargic opponent, is political catnip, especially if you can influence legislators to act.
And here again, Cuomo excels without parallel. The conditions making gun safety a smart call for the governor were largely in place under his successors, but they couldn't move the Republican state senate to support legislation (or in some cases, put it to a vote). Cuomo found a way around that.
By tacitly supporting a controversial power arrangement whereby a handful of Democratic state senators abandoned the elected Democratic majority to swing control of the senate to the Republicans (in exchange for resources and co-equal authority), Cuomo set up his ideal arrangement.
Rather than a powerful Democratic majority (as the voters had elected) that could provide real checks on him, Cuomo now had a loose, decentralized state senate power structure that was far easier for him to control. In fact, he announced that he would only publicly support the governing coalition's legitimacy to the extent it acted on his top ten policy priorities, and would withhold or offer this support on a piecemeal, case-by-case basis.
Even more appetizing for him, Cuomo no longer had to worry about a united Democratic assembly and senate pushing him to act on liberal priorities that pushed him out of his comfort zone. By definition, a hybrid Republican-Democratic coalition is not going to present Cuomo with legislation that pushes him too far left or too far right (in fact, for all the gun safety reforms in this latest package, there are also conservative measures, like increased penalties). For a self-styled "consensus" guy, Goldilocks herself couldn't have asked for better.
But for this odd arrangement to work, the coalition would need to prove it could get stuff done. The breakaway Democrats had explicitly and counter-intuitively stated that they were forming the new structure to better ensure a "progressive agenda." And many observers of Albany politics, including yours truly, noted that the guns package was the first test of their credibility – and one they could not afford to lose.
Here, Cuomo cleverly leveraged the circumstances of this arrangement to his every advantage. First, when the fate of the package was not yet certain, he benefited from the pressure placed on the coalition to pass its first test; the greater the stakes were for the volatile senate leadership to get something done, the more likely the governor was to get his package voted on and passed. Then, when the deal was done, Cuomo allies were able to credibly point to the success of the controversial coalition in passing guns reform, as proof that it was a legitimate governing structure.
Which means the convenient arrangement can continue, and Cuomo can move on to the next item on his priority list, and again pressure the coalition to get it done. (Rinse, wash, repeat.)
But what exactly are his priorities? Once again, his decision to pursue the guns issue is instructive.
His recent rhetoric aside, Cuomo has staked out a relatively conservative record on economic issues, from cutting programs cherished by many in his own party and battling public workers, to eschewing progressive taxation and moving to silence Occupy Wall Street protestors. Such an agenda has helped Cuomo win favor with the well-heeled business and donor community in New York, influential conservative editorial pages, and Republicans, all adding up to very high approval ratings in New York.
But there's been some political cost to this economic conservatism for Cuomo: a backlash from liberals, with MSNBC's Chris Hayes calling him out for his tacit endorsement of the Republican power grab in the senate, and Daily Kos's Markos Moulitsas declaring he looks forward to crushing Cuomo in the 2016 presidential primary.
Cuomo's approach to balancing two competing interests – piling up points to advance in a Democratic primary for president, while steering to the center in key areas (and carefully avoiding antagonizing monied interests who fund campaigns and influence elite opinion) — has consisted of aggressive advocacy of "cultural" or "social" progressive causes, while downplaying economic ones. He has explained this practice by saying he's "a progressive who's broke" (a pronouncement which fails to explain why he opposed higher taxes on the rich).
Former New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has described the approach as, "a 'progr-actionary' or a 'con-iberal,' where you take the two prongs of the progressive agenda, the focus on the economic health of the middle class and the poor, and the liberation of people who've been historically oppressed, and you dump one in its entirety and you seize the other in a very high-profile move."
Marriage equality fit neatly into this matrix. Not only did wealthy people not mind this crusade, many of them actually supported it (and of course, some were themselves gay).
Similarly, guns is another issue right in the Cuomo wheelhouse. Unlike, say, a millionaire's tax (a policy he strongly opposed before acquiescing on a compromise), it's an issue that does not upend the economic status quo.
For Cuomo, the play here is to get the acclaim of being called a "progressive dreamboat" by reporters and commentators who fail to appreciate that liberalism is about more than cultural issues (and to reach voters less focused on economic justice). Just how successful this will be depends in part on the mood and positioning of the national Democratic party.
If economic liberalism ascends — and a candidate like Elizabeth Warren catches fire, or the liberal backlash against him gets louder — this strategy could spell trouble for Cuomo (in this case, one should expect him to suddenly shift leftward on economic justice, a posture he's actually hinted at in recent days). If, instead, what I call "SPECs" (Socially Progressive Economic Conservatives) retain the soul of the party, Cuomo will have a "pro-business" record that fits neatly within that framework.
With this context in mind, don't be shocked if you soon see an energetic effort by Cuomo to tackle the culturally progressive but financially non-disruptive cause of reproductive health care rights, referenced in his recent State of the State address.