F.A.Q.: Why do Chris Christie and Sarah Palin love Andrew Cuomo so much?

Christie, Cuomo, Palin. ()
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A conversation with Salon news editor Steve Kornacki about new conservative hero Andrew Cuomo.

Josh Benson: This lavish praise for Andrew Cuomo from conservatives is a bit much, isn't it? Chris Christie called him a soul-mate, and Sarah Palin praised him for his business-accommodating attitude toward organized labor. And then, yesterday, Christie was at it again, citing Cuomo in his budget address for cutting Medicaid spending.

Steve Kornacki: Hard to blame them, right? No better way to argue against charges of right-wing extremism than with, "Mario Cuomo's son is doing the same thing!" It just gets to a bigger point, which is that this fight with organized labor is prompted by and made for Republican governors, not Democrats.

Josh: Although it hasn't been all that uncomfortable for Cuomo yet, right? He clearly isn't worried about political challenges from the left, and has calculated that he can act in a way that Chris Christie and Sarah Palin find admirable without actually incurring a significant political cost over the short term. I can see a scary-voiceover oppo ad in the future from some freshly eviscerated union being like CHRIS CHRISTIE CALLED HIM A "SOUL MATE" AND SARAH PALIN SAID HE WAS HER KIND OF DEMOCRAT. CUOMO: RIGHT FOR THE RIGHT WING, WRONG FOR NEW YORK. But he has between now and whenever (2014? 2016?) to show that he's made of other stuff. And he moved, just today, to create some rhetorical separation between himself and the Republicans on unions, even as his budget-negotiating position remains the same.

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What's happening to Cuomo right now feels Arkansas-governor-vintage Clintonian or, in more New Yorky terms, like early Ed Koch, when he became a sufficiently stifling presence that he had no real challengers at all, and ran for his first re-election on the Democract and Republican lines.

Steve: True—by '16, none of this will matter. And gubernatorial records, when it comes to presidential campaigns, end up being whatever people want them to be. Democrats let themselves believe Clinton had basically been a liberal in Arkansas when he ran to the left against Tsongas in '92. What I wonder is what Mario actually thinks of this. Not that we'll ever know.

Josh: No, we won't. Although wouldn't it be funny if someone polled the 2012 Republican field and included Andrew Cuomo as a choice? I mean, that seems not appreciably less useful than including Christie, if we're taking Christie's word for it. It's probably too soon—conservative-Tea Party leadership is out ahead of the grassroots on his wonderfulness, I imagine. Although apparently he has slightly better ratings in New York among Republicans than among Democrats. I wonder how he'd do.

Steve: Yep. Poll New York State, throw him in with Mitt, Palin, Huckabee, Pawlenty, and for the hell of it, Trump ....

Josh: So what's the bottom-line political calculus for Cuomo out of this actually very important Whose Side Are You On moment, and what's in it for the Republicans who are claiming him, in this context, as one of their own?

Steve: Well, it's obvious from the Republicans' standpoint, right? Put yourself in Christie's shoes. You're the governor of a Democratic-leaning state and you're constantly being attacked by your opponents as a right-wing ideologue with an extremist agenda. Wouldn't you jump at the chance to note that the son of one of the most prominent liberals of the second half of the 20th Century is doing and saying exactly the same things you are?

It always makes you seem less extreme when you can point to members of the other party who agree with your policies, or who seem to. It's why Republicans trotted out Lieberman in 2008, and why Democrats—way back in 2000 and 2001—would strain themselves to tout all of the issues McCain agreed with them on.

What Cuomo gets out of it is trickier. Lieberman and McCain both had reasons to let the other party use them this way, and their reasons, at their core, were personal. It's different with Cuomo. My sense is that he's made a more basic political calculation: The approach that Christie is taking is, in the climate of 2011, quite popular. Remember how shocked Democrats were when the first poll came out after Christie killed the ARC tunnel? They'd ridiculed him for making such a dumb, cynical, shortsighted decision with serious long-term implications. They were right, and had the studies to prove it.

But Christie framed it as a parochial spending issue and a clear majority of New Jersey residents SUPPORTED him. And the same thing holds for virtually every other item on his list— going after public employees, getting tough with teachers' unions, and on and on. Democrats are appalled, but the public just isn't with them right now.

Josh: I'm not even sure how appalled Democrats are. In Albany, the usual thing for Democrats in the legislature (and, lots of the time, Republicans) is to vote the unions' interests but to do so without much fanfare, without drawing attention to what it actually costs to keep their supporters happy. Cuomo is giving cover to the conservatives, as you say, but isn't he also giving cover to the Democrats to stand down from an unpopular fight? Whatever happens in Wisconsin, where the proposition to end collective bargaining for public employees is a drastic one, the argument in New York, which is merely about reducing spending in ways that will affect union members, is already over, and the question is just about how big (and, to the unions, devastating) the cuts will be.

It feels a tiny bit like Clinton and welfare reform. Pat Moynihan filibustered, but in the end the party went along with it, and in the process took a big Republican issue off the table entirely. So maybe something like that happens in New York: Maybe Democrats figure Cuomo's success with a Christie-like platform is a good opportunity to marginalize the Republicans, at a time when organized labor is in a particularly bad position (thanks to Cuomo's business friends) to lobby against it.

Steve: I think I like that welfare-reform parallel. I hadn't really thought of it that way, but maybe that is the upshot—Democrats see a chance to free themselves from the political baggage that has come from their association with public unions. I mean, even Dan Malloy in Connecticut, who's pitching himself as the anti-Christie, is looking for steep concessions from the unions. He's just trying to be friendly about it. Maybe the outrage we're hearing from the unions and their supporters about the threat—from the Cuomos and Christies—to benefits packages is analogous to the liberals who thought welfare reform was an unconscionable sellout. Maybe they had a point, maybe they didn't. But the party's leaders knew where they wanted to go. I think the final Senate vote was 87-12. Then again, even if Cuomo succeeds—and even if other Democratic governors do, too—the Democrats will still be the party of unions.

Josh: At what point does that become academic, if the political power of the unions is diminished beyond recognition? What will this fight be about, exactly, if the Christies and the Cuomos wind up saying essentially the same thing?

Steve: Abortion and gay marriage! What a national campaign that would be. But I don't think this represents the end of partisan differences or anything like that. It just reflects the difference between governing at the state level, where there tends to be more consensus between the parties, and the national level, where there tends to be very little consensus. So you could look at Cuomo and Christie and see them moving in the same direction. But Obama and Boehner? (To say nothing of Schumer and Boehner.) If Cuomo and Christie were both to step onto the national stage, we'd see the differences quickly.

Josh: So what Cuomo and Christie really have in common is they both took over state goverments that are universally known to stink, extraordinarily. The path to popularity for both is to stick it to everyone. There's not much ideology in that at all, right?

Steve: Right. If, however, Senator Christie and Senator Cuomo were debating the stimulus? Or the Bush tax cuts? Or health care? I don't think Christie would be lauding his colleague from across the Hudson for securing enlightened consensus on the need for smaller government. And Cuomo wouldn't have this opportunity to build a unique identity for himself. I mean, like you said, he's getting tons of press for breaking with Democratic orthodoxy, but how many Democrats in New York actually want him to be doing exactly what he's doing? If he were in the Senate and he tried the same thing, it would mean being branded the next Ben Nelson or Joe Lieberman and becoming The Daily Kos' enemy for life.

Josh: Which of these two actually wins the war with his legislature? Who strikes you as a plausible proposition over the long term?

Steve: My guess would be Cuomo, only because I don't see this as his permanent posture. Maybe I'm wrong, but I've been assuming this is a (relatively) short-term war on his part. Not that the stakes aren't huge and that this won't, in many ways, define his governorship. But a year or two from now, especially of the economy picks up, I figure he becomes more of a conventional Democratic governor. But Christie only has one speed. Which is why I keep thinking that if he's going to run for president, it might as well be now. The moment may not match his style nearly as well in 2016 as it does at the moment.

Josh: Cuomo tacks back, at some point; Christie charges ahead, long past the point when his unstinting truculence is a refreshing change. A wartime executive in peacetime is not attractive. Ask Rudy.

Steve: Although I'm betting Christie holds up for a while. If Obama wins a second term in '12, which is becoming conventional wisdom now I guess, I'd bet Christie wins in 2013. But then, he really starts to wear out his welcome in New Jersey, the national climate changes, and national Republicans find a new rising star or two to obsess over, and by '16 Christie seems stale. Meanwhile, his counterpart in New York....

Josh: What? What about his counterpart in New York? Succeeds beyond even his own wildest dreams? Positions himself to run for re-election as the world's first D-C-W.F.P. candidate for governor? Is ultimately undone by a patient, vengeful Sheldon Silver? What?

Steve: Ha, well I wrote a few weeks ago about the risks to Cuomo's '16 chances from what he's doing now. But I also see the point that '16 is a long way off, and that if Cuomo gets tough now, then tacks back and gets reelected (benefiting from a recovering economy, maybe), then in the big picture, he's the governor of a major state with a famous Democratic name with a record of having faced the horrors of Albany and at least surviving.

If we're both right that his Christie act is temporary, then by 2015 and 2016 it probably won't hurt him. I mean, if he were to run for president down the line, I'm sure his Democratic opponents would use what he's doing now against him. But it's also true, and I probably should have emphasized this more, that gubernatorial records—when it comes to presidential campaigns—end up being whatever you want them to be. So if Democrats in 2015 and 2016 see Cuomo as a good guy and successful governor, they'll rationalize away what he did in 2011 and 2012.

I think he's counting on it.