The state of Clintons and Cuomos

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Mario Cuomo campaigns with Bill Clinton. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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This article is the first installment in a five-part series.

It is a given, for anyone who knows anything about New York politics, that Andrew Cuomo is interested in running for president. It is also a given that he can’t, because there’s already a candidate from New York, and she’s Hillary Clinton.

Clinton poses the same problem for every other Democrat who has an interest in ’16, too. But in Cuomo’s case, the problem comes with an extra heaping of indignity.

It’s not just that he’s a popular governor who, thanks to Hillary, wouldn’t have a prayer of carrying his own state. He’s also the product of a New York political dynasty, a native of Queens, a graduate of Fordham and the son of Mario Cuomo, a three-term governor who at the height of his power and fame could have had the Democratic presidential nomination almost with the snap of his finger.

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Andrew’s had a successful, high-profile term as an activist attorney general, won a landslide gubernatorial victory in 2010, earned headlines from Albany that suggest competence and savvy not seen in a while, and is preparing to win what’s likely to be a solid re-election victory in 2014.

There will be no incumbent president in 2016, the Democratic nomination will be open, and Cuomo has all of the customary credentials of a presidential candidate. He’s a genuine, home-grown New York political star.

And yet the loyalties of Democrats in this state belong first to a woman who was reared in Illinois, schooled in Massachusetts and Connecticut and spent decades in Arkansas and Washington, D.C. before finding an address in Chappaqua at the age of 53.

It’s been this way for the Cuomos for some time now—usurped as the first family of Empire State politics by Hillary and Bill, their own political fortunes and ambitions subordinated to those of the Clintons.

It was a backlash against Bill’s first two years as president that built the 1994 midterm wave that drove Mario into an involuntary retirement, ending a career that just a few years earlier had seemed destined to end in the White House. It was Hillary’s sudden interest in the seat Daniel Patrick Moynihan was vacating in 2000 that choked off any interest Andrew, then a Cabinet secretary in Bill’s administration, had in running for the Senate that year. And it was Bill and Hillary who were both on the scene for the deepest humiliation of Andrew’s political life, helping to broker a deal that ended a disastrous 2002 gubernatorial bid that nearly ruined his career. Now, once again, it’s Hillary’s ambition that Andrew must yield to.

It’s not a hot rivalry, and hasn’t been for a long time. In Bill Clinton in the 1990s, Andrew Cuomo found something of a political role model, even a mentor. And it was Bill Clinton who once offered Mario Cuomo a seat on the Supreme Court. But when ambitions clash, there’s no doubt about which of the two political dynasties has the right of way.

This is not how it had to be. When Bill and Hillary Clinton first presented themselves to the voters of New York, they were a battered political couple. Bill’s presidential candidacy was hanging by a thread, his national party poised to turn on him for good if he couldn’t engineer a win. Mario Cuomo was the undisputed chief of New York politics, and the drawling outsider seemed to be totally and utterly at his mercy.

And then Bill Clinton saved himself and forever changed the pecking order in the Empire State.

WORD REACHED BILL CLINTON ACROSS the Hudson, where he was collecting checks in West Orange from a donor crowd that had woken up that morning assuming he’d be the Democratic Party’s nominee against President George H.W. Bush. But now the polls in Connecticut were closed, the returns were being tabulated quickly, and the media was about to call it: the presumptive nominee was going down.

The mere fact of his defeat in the Connecticut primary on March 24, 1992 represented a jarring turn of fortune for Clinton. Just a week earlier, he’d rolled up crushing margins in Illinois and Michigan, expanding the large delegate advantage he’d established after a series of landslide wins in the Southern-heavy Super Tuesday primaries. Already, Clinton had driven three opponents from the race, and after Illinois and Michigan his most serious remaining foe, former Senator Paul Tsongas, went home to Lowell, Mass. and announced he was suspending his campaign.

And that was supposed to be that. Clinton took a rare break from campaign trail, to golf in Little Rock, as his team began focusing on the fall race against Bush. He made a few perfunctory appearances in Connecticut and ran some ads, but the fact that he wasn’t even in the state on primary night reflected both his confidence in the outcome and the political media’s utter lack of interest in it. There were a bunch of primaries on the spring calendar, but now they’d just serve as lopsided ratifications of the Arkansas governor’s nomination. It was garbage time now.

That was the immediate headache of the Connecticut result for Clinton. His party, which had watched him bob and weave through one campaign-threatening scandal after another, still wasn’t quite ready to call it a day and hand him its reins. But it was worse than that.

There was the matter of who he lost to that night: Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. had been a genuine phenomenon in American politics--for about six weeks in 1976. A 37-year-old first-term governor of California back then, he’d jumped into the Democratic presidential race in early May, months after New Hampshire and long after many other states had voted. But in a climate of miserable stagflation, his vigor and tough medicine gospel (“We have to understand that we are entering an era of limits”) connected with a Democratic electorate that was suddenly questioning its early embrace of a peanut farmer-turned-Georgia governor. Brown’s plan was to stop Jimmy Carter from topping the magic delegate number in the primaries, demonstrate substantial support on his own, then grab the nomination at the convention. And he almost pulled it off, reeling off five late primary wins, but when Carter grunted out a victory in the June Ohio primary, he had his first-ballot majority.