The Mario Effect: Last time a group of presidential challengers was this unimpressive, there was a reason

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Mario Cuomo. ()
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If the outsize attention being paid to Donald Trump's ridiculous presidential stunt indicates anything meaningful, it's just how extraordinarily ill-formed and underwhelming the Republican primary field is right now. Previously scheduled debates are now being canceled or moved to the fall because no one knows who's running—Mitt Romney as prohibitive front-runner, somehow, hardly seems more credible than Trump as runner-up—even though in past cycles, the fields were fairly clear at this stage and the candidates were actively campaigning.

Only once before in the modern era of presidential politics has there been such a vacuum in either party, and New Yorkers, of all people, should remember who produced it: Hamlet on the Hudson.

That was the derisive nickname given to Mario Cuomo after he spent months sending maddeningly mixed signals about his interest in the 1992 presidential race, only to stand down at the last possible second.

The question of why Cuomo decided to pass, and of whether he would have been a slam dunk for the White House if he had jumped in, has been debated for the last two decades. The widespread yearning of today's Republicans for a unifying, charismatic, electable all-star to deliver them from their mediocre presidential options—and the possibility it creates for the first candidate who manages to present him or herself as credible presidential material—is a reminder of the incredible opportunity that Cuomo was presented with 20 years ago.

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The Democratic Party's predicament back then began with the end of Operation Desert Storm. When Iraq was expelled from Kuwait and American troops returned home in the late winter of 1991, President George H.W. Bush's popularity soared to stunning heights—an approval rating over 90 percent in some polls. Not only had the war produced a quick victory with few American casualties, it had come after months of dire warnings from Democrats that intervention in Kuwait would lead to a desert version of Vietnam. The contrast between those forecasts and the reality of what played out only heightened Americans' celebratory mood.

For Democrats, the timing couldn't have been worse. The spring months of '91 were supposed to mark the beginning of the race to unseat the president. Unemployment had been rising steadily— it reached 6.8 percent just as the war ended, the highest level since 1986—and the previous fall, Bush had earned widespread ridicule by going back on his famous "Read my lips: No new taxes!" pledge. Fatigue with the G.O.P., which had controlled the White House for a decade, was rising, Bush was coming to look like a vulnerable incumbent, and several potentially formidable Democrats seemed interested in the race.

But the Gulf War changed everything. Almost overnight, presidential jockeying on the Democratic side came to a halt. Virtually all of the party's A-list prospects had either voted against or spoken out against the war, and Republicans delighted in rubbing it in. Phil Gramm, then a top Senate Republican, branded them “appeasement-before-country liberals."

While it was clear that Bush’s stratospheric poll numbers were artificial, it seemed impossible to imagine in the spring of 1991 that Bush's approval rating could drop far enough to make him vulnerable in the fall of 1992, especially since, as everyone smart kept saying, the preeminent issue in the '92 campaign would be foreign policy.

It was against this backdrop that a Democratic field every bit as slow-forming and late-starting as the current G.O.P. field developed. In April '91, there was only one declared Democratic candidate: Paul Tsongas, an unknown one-term former senator from Massachusetts who had left politics eight years after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Three other Democrats let it be known that they were looking at the race: L. Douglas Wilder, who had been elected governor of Virginia in 1989, George McGovern, the man who'd lost 49 states to Nixon in 1972 (and waged a hopeless bid for the 1984 Democratic nomination), and John Silber, the Boston University president who had nearly won Massachusetts' governorship the previous fall by running as a conservative culture warrior. These were not the kinds of candidates Democrats had been hoping to showcase.

By the end of the summer, a six-candidate Democratic pack was finally taking shape: Tsongas, Wilder, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, former California governor Jerry Brown, and Bill Clinton.

They looked like unwanted leftovers. Brown came the closest to having a national following. He'd been a rising star in the 1970s, entering and winning five late primaries and caucuses in the 1976 Democratic race (and nearly preventing Jimmy Carter from clinching the nomination), but had closed out his gubernatorial tenure on a sour note, then disappeared from the political world in the mid-'80s. "Governor Moonbeam" had spent the first part of '91 preparing to mount a comeback race for a U.S. Senate seat in '92, but when he realized how wide-open the presidential field was, he switched gears and jumped in. That he was now the biggest name seeking the Democratic nomination told you all you needed to know about the state of the field.

Through all of this, there was one brand-name Democrat who refused to close the door completely. "I have no plans and no plans to make plans" was Mario Cuomo's stock answer to questions about the '92 race. But whenever he was given the chance to rule it out decisively—as he had done four years earlier, in the run-up to the 1988 campaign—he demurred. What's more, he set out on a mini-tour in the summer months to press the case against Bush's leadership. He made a trip to Cape Cod—Hyannis, to be exact, home of the Kennedys—to address the U.S Conference of Mayors, and also flew out to California to headline a fundraiser for the state's Democratic Party. There were television appearances, too. "What will the president's slogan be when he runs?" Cuomo said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "You know what it's going to have to come out to? ‘I won the war, the other guy's a bum.’"

No one could tell if Cuomo was actually interested in running; for every flirtatious utterance, he'd include five disclaimers about how committed he was to his job as governor. But almost everyone in the Democratic Party prayed that he was going to jump in. Only a white knight, they were convinced, could save them from a humiliating defeat against Bush, and by the end of the summer, Cuomo was their last best hope.

CUOMO HAD EARNED HIS POTENTIAL-SAVIOR STATUS among Democrats in a single day, seven years earlier.

At that time—July 16, 1984, to be precise—Cuomo was a rather generic Democratic governor of a Northeast state whose political career had been rocky, and somewhat late-starting.

Cuomo had initially made a name for himself in New York City political circles through his work as a mediator in a public housing dispute in Forest Hills, and was tapped in 1974 by Democratic leaders to run for lieutenant governor, on a ticket headed by Hugh Carey. Party chiefs saw Cuomo's presence as a sop to the “white ethnic” voters who had been so crucial to Democrats' success, and who were beginning to resent the party for its embrace of minority-group empowerment. But the plan backfired, and Cuomo was defeated in the September primary by Mary Ann Krupsak, a first-term state senator.

Once Carey got into office, he appointed Cuomo secretary of state, a post Cuomo gave up two years later to run—at Carey's urging—for mayor of New York. That race ended badly, too, with Cuomo losing the Democratic run-off to Ed Koch, then—against the wishes of party leaders—fighting Koch in the general election as the Liberal Party's nominee. Koch won the rematch by ten points, and Cuomo, with two high-profile defeats under his belt, seemed like he might be finished.

Several months later, though, he caught a break when Krupsak turned on Carey, charging the governor with incompetence and announcing that she'd challenge him in the 1978 primary. Carey quickly chose Cuomo to fill her spot on the ticket, the primary turned out to be a non-issue, and the Carey-Cuomo ticket won with ease in the fall.

Four years later, Carey declined to seek reelection and Cuomo sought to succeed him. So did Koch, who by then was approaching the peak of his mayoral popularity. Cuomo was the underdog, but Koch wasn't made for statewide Democratic politics. His cultural conservatism—he was a full-throated supporter for capital punishment—alienated components of the party coalition, which instead rallied around Cuomo. It didn’t help that Koch sneered at the idea of living in Albany, calling it "a city without a good Chinese restaurant," and instantly made upstate voters suspicious that he didn’t understand them and wasn't interested in trying to. Cuomo won the primary by ten points, then, aided by the recession-fueled anti-Reagan tide of '82, held off Republican Lewis Lehrman in November. At the age of 50, Cuomo had finally won a general election on his own.

His inaugural address, in which he introduced the "family of New York" theme that he'd return to over and over through the years, was something of a revelation. Word spread from Albany to Democratic circles around the country: This Cuomo guy could deliver one heck of a speech.

Among those who heard this was Walter Mondale, a man who already liked Cuomo plenty. As lieutenant governor, Cuomo had chaired the Carter-Mondale effort in New York's 1980 Democratic primary, and he'd signed on early with Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign, helping to deliver the former V.P. an important primary victory over Gary Hart. When he wrapped up the nomination, Mondale put out the word that Cuomo was on his list of potential running-mates—a customary way for a nominee to thank a key primary supporter (and a particularly empty gesture from Mondale, who was intent on putting a woman or minority on his ticket). But when it came time to choose a keynote speaker for the San Francisco convention's opening night, Mondale thought of Cuomo right away: Who better to set the tone for the convention and shore up the party's traditional blue-collar base than the eloquent and emphatically liberal Italian-American governor of New York?

So it was that Cuomo took to the stage at San Francisco's Moscone Center for his national television debut on Monday, July 16, 1984. What followed remains quite possibly the most mesmerizing convention addresses of the modern era, a poetic defense of the liberal tradition and a righteous indictment of the "Social Darwinism" at the heart of Reaganomics. Delegates had arrived in a glum mood. The Democratic primaries had been draining and divisive; Hart, in fact, was still trying to convince "superdelegates" to switch their support to him when the convention began. Meanwhile, inflation, unemployment and interest rates were all dropping, and Reagan's popularity—which had fallen under 40 percent in '83—was roaring back. Polls showed him crushing Mondale by more than 20 points. No one believed Mondale had a chance in the fall. Cuomo provided his party with a badly needed 45-minute break from reality, a chance to reaffirm their commitment to the cause and to believe—even if just for a passing moment—that they might yet convince Americans that their grandfatherly president's recovery was a mirage.

"There is despair, Mr. President," Cuomo said, "in the faces that you don't see, in the places that you don't visit, in your shining city."

In the old days, before nominations were settled in primaries and caucuses, his address would have set off a stampede and Cuomo would have been nominated on the spot. Instead, he left the hall and flew home to New York that night, suddenly one of the most famous Democrats in America. After Mondale went down to his inevitable November defeat, initial polling for the 1988 cycle put Cuomo—an unknown name just months earlier—near the top of the Democratic field, behind only Hart and Ted Kennedy (who quickly announced that he wouldn’t run).

But Cuomo refused to take the '88 bait, even after posting a landslide victory in his 1986 reelection campaign. In early '87, he announced on his monthly radio show that he wouldn't run, and he refused to reconsider when Hart's candidacy imploded in a sex scandal a few months later.

Had a Democrat won the White House in 1988, that probably would have been the end of Cuomo's White House prospects. But in the wake of Michael Dukakis' defeat, his national stock rose. Dukakis had come across as a dispassionate technocrat, playing right into the hands of the G.O.P.'s caricature artists. In his most infamous moment, Dukakis had provided a bloodless, wonkish reply to a debate question about whether he might reconsider his opposition to the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. More than a few Democrats wondered: How differently would things have turned out if Cuomo, and not Dukakis, had been the one fielding that question? There was in the late 1980s and early 1990s no more popular spokesman for liberalism than Mario Cuomo.

BY THE FALL OF 1991, UNEMPLOYMENT WAS STILL RISING and it was clear the country was in a recession. Bush's approval ratings were now under 60 percent. Polls still showed Bush clobbering his potential Democratic foes , Cuomo included, but the trajectory of his popularity was encouraging for Democrats. In other words, the '92 nomination was beginning to look like it might not be quite so worthless after all. And the race for it was wide open.

Tsongas was the only contender who'd jumped in early, and he still hadn’t made a dent. Wilder had been the next to jump, and he hadn't made much of an impression, either. Brown, Clinton, Harkin and Kerrey didn’t even formally announce their candidacies until September and October. There'd been no debates and little news coverage about the contest and no one had raised much money. "Undecided" was the runaway leader in polling. Moreover, the native-son presence of Harkin turned Iowa into a non-event. The caucuses were ceded to him, sparing candidates considerable time and money. All of the early action would be in one state: New Hampshire.

These were perfect conditions for Cuomo. He could still jump in the race without paying a price for his late start. On October 7, he placed a phone call to Bob Shrum, the longtime Democratic consultant, admitting that he was interested in running and seeking advice. Four days later, he made the same admission to supporters at a private breakfast meeting at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan. When news of his statements broke, Cuomo tried to downplay the significance.

"They said, 'Will you think about it?'" he told the press. "I said, 'Sure, I'll think about it. I'm always thinking about it.' I said I'd have to be mindless not to think about it. I don't talk about it, but I think about it. Of course I do."

But there was no way to diminish the significance: Mario Cuomo had never before been so blunt about his interest in running for president.

Not coincidentally, it was around this same time that Cuomo began aggressively pursuing a long-term budget deal for New York. The budget passed earlier in the year had contained a hole of nearly $900 million, and a shortfall of well over $3 billion was looming for the fiscal year set to start on April 1. Cuomo sought an agreement with the legislative leadership—Democrats in the Assembly and Republicans in the Senate—for an 18-month agreement that would address both gaps. Publicly, he vowed not to make any presidential moves before reaching a budget agreement. It's tough to determine what motivated this posture. Cuomo framed it as an act of responsible stewardship, but it was probably good politics too: Better to enter a presidential race after solving a budget crisis rather than putting off a reckoning, as usual.

Excitement over a Cuomo campaign built. Two early November polls showed him dominating the Democratic field in New Hampshire. One put him at 31 percent (with Harkin, whose populist liberalism would likely be drowned out by a Cuomo candidacy, in second place at six percent); another gave Cuomo 30 percent (with Tsongas, running on a pro-business/anti-deficit platform, in second with ten percent). National surveys also pegged Cuomo as the clear Democratic front-runner. Even as a non-candidate, he was suffocating the rest of the field. Democrats were far more interested in whether Cuomo would run than in what any of the candidates who actually were running had to say.

This meant that Cuomo had time. The New Hampshire primary would be held on February 18 and the filing deadline was two months beforehand, on December 20. As the fall wore on and budget negotiations stalled, it began to look like Cuomo might wait until close to the filing deadline to run. But the conventional wisdom held that this was a good thing: None of the other candidates were taking off and by staying away for as long as possible, Cuomo was limiting their chances to attack him, and his own chances of slipping up on the campaign trail.

December brought even better polling news. An ABC News/Washington Post survey released on December 16 found that Bush's approval rating had fallen to 47 percent, the first time it had slipped below the 50 percent mark. It also found Cuomo running just five points behind the president—48 to 43 percent—in a trial heat; just two months earlier, Bush's advantage had been 28 points. Economic anxiety was mounting and Bush was now plainly vulnerable; the president had even drawn an unexpected Republican primary challenger, Pat Buchanan.

That poll was released at the start of what was supposed to be Cuomo's big week: The New Hampshire filing deadline was that Friday at 5 P.M. There was still no budget deal. The Republicans who controlled the State Senate and seemed utterly uninterested in compromise. Were they trying to thwart Cuomo's presidential aspirations by denying him the budget victory he'd publicly said was essential to even considering a campaign? Cuomo suspected so, and attempted to wiggle out of his commitment.

"If you made up your mind that they were doing this only to prevent you from running, then the solution would be to run," he said that Monday night. "Then they would no longer have the motive to slow you up."

On Tuesday, Cuomo's point-man in New Hampshire, Joe Grandmaison (a former state party chairman and failed 1990 gubernatorial candidate), was dispatched to pick up a ballot application in Concord, which he then sent to Albany. Cuomo signed the application and returned it—along with a check for $1,000, the filing fee for the primary—the next day. He also sent word to Grandmaison to set up a tentative schedule of events in New Hampshire for that Thursday or Friday. Word leaked. Excitement mounted.

But Ralph Marino and his fellow Republicans in the state Senate dug in their heels. And they called in reinforcements: By mid-week, U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato arrived in Albany, where he held a press conference to blast Cuomo for his handling of the budget. By the end of Thursday, there was still no deal. Now Grandmaison wouldn't be able to file for the primary in Cuomo's place, since state law required that any ballot applications filed within 24 hours of the deadline be handed in by the candidate himself. A plane was chartered and plans for a Friday flight from Albany to Manchester were made.

Cable news wasn't in 1991 what it is today, but the Cuomo drama dominated CNN—then the lone all-news cable network—all day on Friday, December 20. The best guess, when the day began, was that Cuomo, with or without a budget deal, would end up jumping on the plane and saving his party just in the nick of time. Democrats were begging him to do it, he was the runaway leader in every poll taken, and he'd have a very good chance of beating Bush if he could secure the nomination. Would he really let a handful of Republican state senators deny him his appointment with history?

The morning dragged on. Cuomo prepared two statements, one announcing his candidacy and the other explaining why he wasn't running, and previewed them for his aides. He worked the phones too: Still no deal on the budget, and no immediate prospect of a deal. By noon, doubt began to creep in. It would take time to get to the airport, to fly to New Hampshire, to drive to the State House, and the ballot application was due at 5:00. If he waited much longer, he'd be cutting it too close. 12:30 came and Cuomo remained sequestered in his office. Then 1:00, 1:30 and 2:00, with the plane he chartered still sitting on the runway. By the time his office finally sent word that he'd be making a public statement at 3:30, it was obvious he was out.

"It is my responsibility as governor to deal with this extraordinarily severe problem," Cuomo explained that afternoon. "Were it not, I would travel to New Hampshire today and file my name as a candidate in this presidential primary. That was my hope and I prepared for it. But it seemed to me that I cannot turn my attention to New Hampshire while this threat hangs over the head of the New Yorkers I have sworn to put first."