Some politicians move politics and government in their direction. Ronald Reagan pulled America to the right in a way that lasted long after his career was over. In a smaller way, Rudy Giuliani had that effect in New York City.
Mario Cuomo was not that kind of politician. He did not succeed in pulling either his state or country in the direction he wanted. That’s why so many of the obituaries and remembrances of him dwell on his speeches, and in particular on two celebrated speeches he gave in 1984: the keynote address at that year’s Democratic convention, and his speech on abortion at Notre Dame.
In that speech, Cuomo made the case that it was possible for a conscientious politician to be a practicing Catholic who believes that unborn children are living human beings that abortion kills and simultaneously to favor denying them the legal protections that other living human beings receive — and even to favor funding their killing. He put himself in the tradition of those American Catholics who had refused to speak out for the abolition of slavery. Those Catholics were making “a measured attempt to balance moral truths against political realities,” he argued, and he was doing the same thing.
If it had not been Cuomo, someone else would have come along to come up with a thoughtful-sounding rationalization for the “personally opposed” position on abortion. Cuomo was the one who did it, though, and it helped to make his party nearly monolithic in its support for abortion. Nothing else he did or said had as great an impact.