10:15 am May. 24, 2012
Andrew Cuomo is on call, officially.
“I will support the president however they want me to support the president, you know, however I can be helpful, I will," Cuomo told reporters in Albany earlier this month. "And I'll leave it to them to determine whatever they want me to do."
As the nation's most popular governor, Cuomo has the potential to be an especially productive surrogate for President Obama. He could appeal to white ethnics in swing states, or rally the social liberals who admire him for having been out ahead of his party (and his president) on same-sex marriage, or perhaps headline a few fund-raisers with the wealthy New York donors who have stocked his own campaign coffers and funded the super PAC-like group dedicated to running pro-Cuomo advertising.
Assuming he wants to do any of that.
The presidential race presents a tricky prospect for Cuomo, who has carefully cultivated two conceits since becoming governor: that he is not a traditionally partisan Democrat, and that he is fully focused on the job of governing New York, to the exclusion of any considerations of a future run for national office. This posture has helped him maintain his extraordinarily close working relationship with the Republicans who control the New York State Senate, and to build an approval rating in New York that is nearly as high among independents and Republicans as among Democrats.
Of course, his apparent disinterest in being a Democrat and a presidential candidate is precisely what sets him up one day to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Betting heavily on Obama doesn't, necessarily.
WHEN THE TWO APPEARED TOGETHER in Albany on May 8, Cuomo praised Obama, saying there was "no doubt, Mr. President, that your leadership has brought this nation through the storm, and we thank you."
Those words aren't exactly effusive compared to, say, the full-throated support Mitt Romney enjoys from surrogates like New Jersey governor Chris Christie. But it was something relatively new.
Last fall, when reporters asked about the president's new proposal for a federal millionaire's tax, the governor demurred, and said he would need to see "specifics." A few hours later, Cuomo, who had staunchly opposed a state millionaire's tax, offered support for Obama's plan in the form of an emailed statement.
In December, a holiday email from the governor's campaign account actually used Obama and Congress as an unstated foil, saying the "national economy remains stagnant and the gridlock in Washington seems never ending," but New Yorkers could celebrate the "great progress" in Albany.
Cuomo's distance from Obama is underscored by the relatively robust relationship the president has with his successor in the New York State attorney general's office.
At an Obama fund-raiser celebrating the president's newfound support for same-sex marriage at the Rubin Museum last Monday, the president said from the stage, "Your outstanding attorney general Eric Schneiderman is in the house, so please give him a big round of applause as well!"
In January, Schneiderman sat in the first lady's box at the State of the Union, while the president announced he had appointed the attorney general to chair a new joint task force on the mortgage crisis.
A week before that, Schneiderman did surrogate duty on a conference call, organized by the Democratic National Committee, "welcoming" Romney to New York, and questioning why the presumptive Republican candidate had yet to release his taxes.
Other New Yorkers have done their bit, too. Senator Chuck Schumer did a similar call in March, defending the president's record on Israel and another one in April on "Mitt Romney's penchant for secrecy." Representative Carolyn Maloney did an April call questioning Romney's plan for a "Better America," and just this week, Jerry Nadler did semi-rapid response to Newark mayor Cory Booker's denunciation of the Obama campaign's attacks on Bain Capital.
So far, Cuomo has yet to hold any such press conference, and he continues (as a matter of course, beyond issues related to the presidential campaign) to shun the Sunday mornings shows, where Schumer regularly pushes the president's talking points, and where New York's junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand recently took a turn attacking Republicans for their "war on women."
Of course, the electoral fortunes of those New York Democrats are linked to Obama's in a way that Cuomo's aren't, and the governor has very clearly chosen not to make their challenges his own. (The governor chose not to intervene on behalf of his fellow Democrats in a dispute over a new congressional map, and actually greatly helped the Republicans who hold the New York State Senate during the redistricting process.)
When I've asked people in the Obama campaign about the fact that they haven't made much use of Cuomo yet, they've said it's simply too early in the cycle to begin engaging all the governors, notwithstanding the fact that some of them have already begun to be active. Cuomo insiders have told me much the same thing.
They all said they expect the governor to be helpful in some capacity, and a number of them pointed to the governor's appearance at a fund-raiser for Obama last year as evidence that everything is fine between the two camps.
THERE IS PRECEDENT FOR THIS DYNAMIC, INVOLVING THE CURRENT governor's father.
It was far from clear in early 1992 how Mario Cuomo would approach the candidacy of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton. Their relationship was, by any measure, an awkward one. In January of that year, Gennifer Flowers had released secretly record tapes in which Clinton said Cuomo "acts like" a Mafioso, and was a "mean son of a bitch."
Clinton duly apologized, saying "I meant simply that Governor Cuomo is a tough and worthy competitor." Cuomo had said Clinton should "save himself his quarter" if he was going to call and claim the comments were not anti-Italian, and that he didn't find it to be "much of an explanation."
But by April, just before the important New York primary, Cuomo had begin publicly praising Clinton, saying he would make a "superb president," and questioning his closest rival Jerry Brown. (Officially, Cuomo stayed neutral until the nomination was decided.)
"His relationship with Bill Clinton actually got better during the course of the late spring and summer, once Clinton was the nominee," recalled John Marino, a Cuomo family confidant who served as chair of the state party at the time, and also chaired Clinton's campaign in New York. "He did develop what I would call a phone relationship with Clinton where they talked fairly regularly."
The question then became whether Cuomo would travel on Clinton's behalf, and whether he would put his oratorical power to work for Clinton at the Democratic convention, which was being held at Madison Square Garden. (The governor then, like the one now, said he didn't expect to play a major role.)
The answer to both, as it turned out, was yes. Cuomo famously hated not being home at night, but consented to at least a few stops around the country, praising Clinton on "Meet the Press" for his bravery in suggesting tax increases, introducing him at the Democratic National Convention and at the occasional campaign rally.
"We want to do a little bit of the grunt work for him, and do a little bit of the fact-delivery if you will, on the problems that are facing the country, to take a little bit of the burden off Governor Clinton," Cuomo told a cheering crowd in Michigan, when he introduced Clinton a week before the election.
"We have gone nowhere for 10 years under Bush, under Reagan!" he said.
But for the elder Cuomo, there wasn't much to lose in terms of future ambitions or nonpartisan standing.
He had just declined a draft movement to run for president, and he had been regarded nationally as a sort of uber-Democrat ever since his stirring convention speech denouncing Ronald Reagan's America eight years earlier.
Andrew Cuomo has since lamented that the speech put a partisan target on his father's back, according to people who have spoken to him about it, and he seems to have drawn an important lesson from it.
It's not clear yet what Cuomo made of his father's decision to plunge into the fray eight years later on behalf of a candidate who, like Obama right now, was far from a sure thing.