Hillary’s call: Andrew Cuomo’s national ambitions depend on what the secretary of state decides to do next

The two politicians on Columbus Day, 2008. ()
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One of the perks, if that’s the right word, of winning a gubernatorial election in New York is instant certification as a future White House prospect. This is particularly true if the governor in question happens to be the son of a man who was once the preeminent liberal politician in America and who passed up two shots at the Democratic presidential nomination.

Thus, speculation that Andrew Cuomo will ultimately seek the presidency in 2016 began even before he took office earlier this year, and it has intensified when Cuomo produced a tough budget without sacrificing his popularity. If he can now deliver on his push for gay marriage (and it’s a very big if), he will have a big achievement that will enhance his standing with liberals nationally and ratchet up the White House talk even further.

Here is where we insert the cliché about how five years can be an eternity in politics—how we don’t even know who the president will be in 2016, or whether Cuomo will even be reelected as governor in 2014, and how someone no one is even thinking about right now could come along in the next few years and blow Cuomo (and many other would-be candidates) out of the water. After all, five years before the 2008 election, almost no one outside of Illinois had heard of a state senator named Barack Obama.

All of this is true—we're simply not in a position to handicap 2016. What we can do as Cuomo’s governorship progresses, though, is to consider the dynamics in Albany and on the national stage as they evolve and weigh whether they make it more or less likely that Cuomo will actually be in position to run in ‘16. And here, one major obstacle already stands out: Hillary Clinton.

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If the once-in-a-lifetime Obama phenomenon hadn’t materialized, Hillary would probably have won the Democratic nomination, and the presidency, three years ago. As it was, she walked away with her viability intact; by reeling off several big wins late in the primary season, she emerged from the process in incomparably better shape than she would have been in if her campaign had imploded after a series of lopsided wins by Obama in February ’08.

And since that ’08 campaign, Clinton’s stature, among Democrats and Americans in general, has grown. As secretary of state, she’s burnished her credentials as a stateswoman and removed herself from the day-to-day partisan warfare of Washington, even as her visibility has increased. Her favorable rating among all voters is now well over 60 percent.

Do we know that Hillary, who will be 69 in ’16, wants to run again? Of course not. But we do know that everything that she’s done so far since her loss to Obama has positioned her beautifully for a second presidential bid. Whether Obama wins or loses in November ‘12, she figures to be touted immediately afterward as the early and clear frontrunner for ’16. And if Obama is reelected, there’s a real possibility that she’ll emerge as his unofficial heir apparent, assuming Joe Biden (who will turn 74 at the end of ’16) declines to run.

This could be particularly problematic for Cuomo's presidential aspirations. Let’s say that his governorship progresses relatively smoothly for the next few years—that there are no major scandals, that he racks up a couple of signature achievements, and that he wins reelection comfortably in 2014. He would probably, at that point, be an attractive ’16 option for national Democrats. But put Hillary into the mix, and there’s a problem: They’re too similar.

For one thing, they share a home state. Sure, there are several instances in the modern era when candidates from the same state have both sought a party’s nomination: Shirley Chisholm and John Lindsay on the Democratic side in 1972; Phil Crane and John Anderson (both Republican congressmen from Illinois) in 1980; California Governor Pete Wilson and Rep. Robert Dornan in the early stages of the 1996 race; and Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain (who waged an unsuccessful Senate bid in Georgia in 2004) on the G.O.P. side right now. But these were (and in the cases of Newt and Cain, are) long-shot, niche candidates; there were many, many reasons to dismiss all of them as serious contenders.

But never in the modern era have two heavyweight candidates from the same state sought a party’s nomination, and that's not because it's unheard of for one state to produce two heavyweights.

The best example came in the wake of the 1984 election, when two Massachusetts Democrats emerged as potentially serious candidates for the 1988 nomination. But there was a clear pecking order: Only when Senator Ted Kennedy announced that he wouldn’t run did Governor Michael Dukakis have a real opening to jump in. With Kennedy in the race, Dukakis’ donor base and regional political support base would have been shattered; he would never have run. But with Kennedy out, Dukakis was a formidable candidate—one who was able to build early national credibility by staging a fundraising dinner that netted a then-staggering $1 million.

With Clinton and Cuomo, there’s a clear pecking order, too. The secretary of state is already—like Kennedy in the ‘80s—an established national Democratic leader, a political celebrity with a presidential candidacy under her belt. (And her ’08 campaign went better than Kennedy’s 1980 effort against Jimmy Carter.) As things now stand, her presence would eat into his financial and political base. The race would already have a moderate-to-liberal New Yorker with a famous national name.

There’s also Cuomo’s personal relationship with the Clintons. It was, after all, Bill Clinton who plucked him from Albany two decades ago, brought him to Washington, and ultimately gave him a Cabinet department to run. Andrew Cuomo’s biological father may be Mario Cuomo, but it has long seemed like his political father is Bill Clinton—something that’s evident in Andrew’s embrace of Bill’s pragmatism over Mario’s martyrdom. Would Andrew Cuomo actually be willing to run against the Clintons, especially if the odds are long?

Andrew Cuomo can do any number of things between now and 2016 to improve his prospects. But the single most significant variable for him may end up being whatever decision Hillary Clinton makes about the prospect of another run at the White House.