Cuomo’s Moment?

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks at the Javits Center, which will be partially converted into a temporary hospital during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, March 27, 2020. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
The New York governor’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has earned high marks from voters, but the White House remains out of his reach for now.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he fact that I am writing this from home, in a New York City that has been more or less shut down, with the National Guard checked into neighboring hotels and, just a few blocks away, Gotham’s principal conference center hosting an emergency hospital, is a reminder that to dismiss almost anything these days as an impossibility is unwise. And so, yes, it is possible that Andrew Cuomo could be chosen as the Democratic nominee at whatever sort of convention the party is able to hold in Milwaukee in August. But it is also extremely unlikely.

In the Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel has written what, on first sight, looks like a paean to Cuomo:

Andrew M. Cuomo is having quite a moment. Using the bully pulpit that the first Gov. Roosevelt, Theodore, made famous, the current governor of the Empire State hopes to emerge as our era’s equivalent to the second Gov. Roosevelt, Franklin. It’s an astounding, complex transformation brought on by the coronavirus crucible, and the nation is transfixed.

The pandemic is Cuomo’s Great Depression. Unlike our juvenile president, Cuomo has been clear, compassionate and inspiring these past weeks. He has taken the words of Franklin Roosevelt to heart (and to Twitter): “The news is going to get worse and worse before it gets better and better, and the American people deserve to have it straight from the shoulder.”

Vanden Heuvel is hardly the first pundit to pick up on this train of thought, either. Kathleen Parker, writing in the same newspaper, beat her to the punch by a week:

Unlike Trump’s self-indulgent soliloquies, Cuomo’s statements were straightforward, honest, factual and, despite the dire statistics, refreshingly reassuring. He understands that adults can absorb information and respond appropriately.

Well, yes and no, if his performance at a press briefing on March 24 is any indication. At times he seemed to echo the profoundly dishonest claim that we are confronted with a choice between reviving the economy and preserving human life (it really isn’t that simple: If the economy founders, it will take lives with it), but at others he appeared to acknowledge, if only tacitly, the more complicated reality: The economy’s current plight is unsustainable. Some way has to be found to get people back to their jobs (younger workers, perhaps, or those who have recovered from the virus). The notion that this will not involve some calculation of “acceptable” levels of risk and, by extension, loss of life is nonsense, however eloquently Cuomo might maintain otherwise:

My mother is not expendable, your mother is not expendable, and our brothers and sisters are not expendable, and we’re not going to accept the premise that human life is disposable, and we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.

Nevertheless, it would be churlish to deny that, so far, the governor is having, as Brits used to say, a “good war.” He has been decisive without rushing into drastic measures such as lockdowns until he has believed that they are unavoidable, and he’s proving to be an effective manager. He has also, even to more critical observers than vanden Heuvel and Parker — i.e. his constituents — looked and sounded like a governor should: According to a Siena College poll released on Monday, 87 percent of New Yorkers, including 87 percent of independents, approve of the job he is doing in tackling the pandemic.

Under the circumstances, it’s unsurprising that some Democrats, dismayed at the prospect of being led into the election by either aging fanatic Bernie Sanders or doddering Joe Biden, are looking to Cuomo as an alternative. And it’s probably not only Democrats who feel that way. Ever helpful, Donald Trump himself has said that Cuomo would be a “better candidate than Sleepy Joe.”

Cuomo, who was early to endorse Biden, has repeatedly said, including in an interview on Monday, that he is not thinking of running for president, wording that does not technically rule out being drafted. But how that could be achieved remains, for now, hard to imagine. It would be extraordinarily difficult for Biden to hand Cuomo the crown, even if he wanted to, and Sanders and his supporters would never play along. It may say more about their ideological intensity than Cuomo’s fairly liberal politics, but there’s little love lost between New York’s governor and the party’s progressive grassroots. Even vanden Heuvel, a long-term champion of the Left, seemed to imply that her support for Cuomo was conditioned on the assumption that he would move in her direction, becoming an impressive and persuasive salesman for policies in which he may not actually believe.

Even the vice-presidential slot, which is rather more important in a contest where — again, at least for now — the options are all men in their 70s with less than perfect health, looks closed to Cuomo given Biden’s promise that he would pick a woman as his running mate. It’s possible, I suppose, to dream up an exquisitely choreographed pantomime in which Biden offered the job to a woman who then declined it in favor of Cuomo, but to describe such a scenario as far-fetched is an understatement.

There’s also the little matter of what ditching New York in the middle of its fight against the coronavirus would do to the governor’s reputation as someone who can be relied upon in a crisis. Even if the pandemic peaks in the state at the end of this month, there’s every danger that it will return later in the year. And even after it’s routed more permanently, the economic mess that it and the measures taken to combat it have created will be a long, long way from resolution. Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower owed their presidencies in no small part to the qualities of leadership they had shown in wartime, but their wars had been won before they took aim at the presidency. Cuomo will be very lucky indeed if he is able to declare victory in his ‘war’ any time soon. To leave New York before then — whether to run for president or take a post in a Biden administration — would look uncomfortably like desertion.

The best guess, therefore, is that Cuomo — who, whatever he says, has always had eyes for the White House — will stay in Albany and run for a fourth term as governor in 2022. Quite what politics will look like in that year, both within the Democratic Party and outside it, is, in the wake of COVID-19, unusually tricky to predict, but if Cuomo manages to win reelection again, he ought to be well-placed to take advantage of whatever 2024 may have to offer him. Quite what that might be, however, is impossible to say.

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