The rainbow governor: Now, Andrew Cuomo has a bit of everything he needs for 2016

Andrew Cuomo at yesterday's gay-pride parade. (Signejb via flickr.)
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Let's just stipulate that the past six months could not possibly have gone any better for Andrew Cuomo. Actually, that's true for the entire last five years.

At this point in 2006, Cuomo was struggling to build a respectable life in politics out of the carnage of his first gubernatorial bid. With his old man calling in favors, he'd somehow cobbled together a credible campaign for attorney general, but it seemed that his legendary ambition would have to be scaled back in his rebooted career. After all, if there was going to be a new national star coming out of New York (other than Hillary Clinton), it would be Eliot Spitzer.

Who back then would have believed that the summer of 2011 would start not only with the New York Post's Fred Dicker hailing Governor Cuomo's first half-year in office as a "grand slam of remarkable successes" and "a tour de force of what leadership should be about," but also with a leading national political publication touting Cuomo as a formidable candidate for the next open Democratic presidential nomination?

It's hard to argue much with these reviews. That Cuomo was able to achieve so much in his first six months in office—an on-time budget with no tax increases, enactment of a property-tax cap, legalization of same-sex marriage—is remarkable by itself.

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What's extraordinary, though, is that none of this work has taken a toll on his standing with the public. Nor has the awful economy. Virtually every other big-state governor in America—even those who, like Cuomo, were just elected last year —has seen his or her poll numbers ravaged by the economy and the tough choices it has forced. But a recent Quinnipiac survey pegged Cuomo's approval rating at 61 percent, with just 18 percent of New Yorkers disapproving of his work. Given the glowing headlines of the past few days, those numbers only figure to improve in the days ahead.

A gravity-defying big-state governor with a famous name and an impressive list of achievements? It makes perfect sense for the Cuomo '16 talk to have reached new levels since the crowning feat of his first six months—gay marriage—was realized late Friday night.

Gay marriage is (at least for now) the key to whatever national aspirations Cuomo might have. As he apparently admitted to his own father, his budget and tax-cap victories were "operational" in nature—not exactly the sort of stuff around which White House campaigns are built. If anything, in fact, the budget figured to complicate things down the line, with public-employee unions here remembering the hard line Cuomo took against them and reminding their national brethren.

But the enactment of gay marriage is a genuinely historic and lasting achievement, one that resonates powerfully with the Democratic Party base, which will not soon forget this. It seems inevitable that same-sex marriage will eventually be the norm across America, but we're still early in that process. Cuomo has thus established himself as a trailblazer, and as the guy who convinced the Republican-led Senate in the third-largest state in the country to hand the gay-rights movement its biggest victory to date. It wasn't a court that legalized gay marriage in New York. It was a governor.

It's far too early to know which Democrats will end up running for president in 2016, as Cuomo is obliged, for now, to point out. But we already know that none of them will have a better story to tell on this issue. And with polls showing Americans only growing more comfortable with the idea of gay marriage, there's really no long-term downside for Cuomo. By the fall of '16, support for gay marriage on the national stage won't seem nearly as bold or risky as it now does.

There's a rather big caveat here, which is that Cuomo is only 12.5 percent of the way through his first term now. There's plenty of time for something, anything, to go wrong. And assuming there is an open Democratic primary in 2016, there's plenty of time between now and then for other contenders to make waves of their own. Plus, as I noted not long ago, Hillary Clinton will continue to loom as a serious obstacle to any Cuomo '16 candidacy. If she decides to run, it would complicate the logic of a Cuomo campaign.

But Cuomo's overall position is enviable. Within New York, he's avoided the kind of polling plunge that would kick off a cycle in which his opponents are emboldened, legislative progress stalls,the press questions his leadership, and the polls plunge further. He's done this mainly by pursuing a conservative fiscal agenda that has kept the volume of criticism from the right to a minimum. In fact, some of his loudest cheerleaders in New York have been Republicans. Has any other big-state governor managed to do this? Think of John Kasich in Ohio or Rick Scott in Florida, two first-year Republican governors who have faced loud, unified and sustained criticism from the other party. Their numbers are in the toilet.

And for Democrats here and across the country who might be upset by his austerity agenda, well, the governor provided them with a powerful reminder on Friday night that his last name is still Cuomo.