Governor Andrew Cuomo will not say he is running for president. Apparently mortified of inviting any comparisons to his Hamlet-on-the-Hudson father, Cuomo has insisted publicly he is only interested in running for a third term. To even suggest he is dreaming of the Oval Office is to invite acidic rebukes from his aides.
“It’s somewhat comical to me that you’re asking me to defend his prospects when he’s never given any indication he wants to be anything other than governor,” Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Cuomo, told the Voice.
Yet Cuomo has done little to quell the chatter, cresting in the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning victory, that he is considering a presidential run in 2020. He won’t rule anything out. He likes being coy. “Are you planning for running for president?” one reporter asked last month. “I’m planning to be the best governor I can for the state of New York,” he replied. The Buffalo News recently suggested Cuomo “is in a good position for 2020 in terms of being a veteran Democrat and a sitting governor, which gives him political power and a bully pulpit.”
Though political dynamics always change, it’s hard to fathom a politician more ill-suited for this populist moment than Andrew Cuomo. The son of a governor with a long career in government, he has been the consummate insider, a staunch Bill and Hillary Clinton loyalist content to align himself with the party’s centrist, corporate-friendly wing. Unlike his erstwhile friend, Mayor Bill de Blasio, there was never any question that he’d back Clinton for president and dismiss Bernie Sanders as a socialist nuisance. As governor, Cuomo has derided the idea of raising taxes on the wealthy to distribute income downward. He has played politics with CUNY and transit funding, empowered a seemingly unkillable Senate Republican majority and bullied public sector unions. He is the embodiment of triangulation, something a sizable portion of the Democratic primary electorate has rejected. Right-wing hedge fund managers have been, and continue to be, some of his most generous donors.
As Chris Christie found out, corruption back home can haunt in Iowa and New Hampshire. The indictment of Cuomo’s closest aide, Joe Percoco, will never attract the scrutiny of Bridgegate. But New York remains one of — if not the most — ethically-challenged states in America, and a senator from California (Kamala Harris?) or Minnesota (Amy Klobuchar?) could find plenty to eviscerate. Cuomo has said all the right things — he wants publicly-financed campaigns, strict limits on outside income for lawmakers and a closure of the repugnant LLC loophole — but done little to make them a reality. He is popular here, but not overwhelmingly popular. A plurality of voters in a recent Siena College poll told him not to consider running for president.
Cuomo would quickly argue he has many progressive accomplishments to tout. This is true. He was the governor who overcame entrenched Republican opposition to legalize same-sex marriage. He toughened gun control laws. In his second term, after a primary scare from law professor Zephyr Teachout, he has enacted a robust minimum wage increase and a paid family leave plan. Cuomo aides are fond of pointing out they’ve accomplished locally much of what Sanders has called for nationally.
If Cuomo ever wants to ever run for president, he will have to shed his aversion to campaigning. In 2010 and 2014, he rarely interacted with voters, preferring large union-stacked rallies and massive television expenditures to the in-person stumping he would have to undertake in the early voting states. In recent years, he has grown more comfortable with television, but still seems to prefer radio interviews with friendly, non-confrontational hosts. He will also have to leave New York State, something he rarely likes to do.
Cuomo shouldn’t seek too much perspective in Hillary Clinton’s loss — no candidate in the near future is likely to secure that much support from elected officials and donors in a primary, and if Cuomo gets half her support he will be lucky. Rather, Cuomo can look to another left-of-center governor of a major state who foundered quickly: Martin O’Malley of Maryland. O’Malley’s progressive accomplishments were as impressive as Cuomo’s, and unlike the travel-averse governor, he spent several years crisscrossing the country in an attempt to build a national infrastructure. O’Malley, also the former mayor of Baltimore, even relished talking to voters.
Clinton’s early dominance and the Sanders revolution left no room for O’Malley’s ambitions and he learned the lesson all governors and mayors must come to terms with eventually: just about every failure of the city or state you govern will be laid at your feet, no matter how much or how little you had to do with them. Freddie Gray was killed, Baltimore rioted, and O’Malley was forced to account again for his troubled mayoralty, which ended in 2007. There are no crises of that scale in New York State but scandals and missteps accumulate the longer any executive remains in power. The opposition research book on Cuomo will be swollen by 2020.
Before then, Cuomo will have to get re-elected. He has been good at deterring serious challengers, even when he is at his weakest. No one plays a better power game in New York. What he wants to do after that is only his guess.