The Cuomo exception: Why Andrew isn’t playing along with his party in 2012

Mario Cuomo. ()
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The story of the 39 minutes that made Mario Cuomo a star is well-known. He arrived on the first day of his party’s 1984 convention in San Francisco as a relatively unknown second-year governor and flew back to New York that same night as a national liberal hero.  

One measure of the power of that keynote address is that, by itself, it turned Cuomo into a heavyweight contender for his party’s next two presidential nominations. With the exception of a well-received 1985 speech at Notre Dame, where he sought to reconcile his Roman Catholicism with his liberal cultural views, Cuomo stuck close to home for the next eight years, shunning the kind of national networking and early primary state travel that for most White House prospects is mandatory.

And yet the demand by Democrats for a Cuomo candidacy only grew, culminating in the surreal pre-Christmas drama of 1991, when the political world spent an entire day watching a small plane idle on the Albany tarmac.  

Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 finally burst the Mario presidential bubble, and he was defeated in New York two years later.

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But nearly 30 years after he delivered it, the impact of his San Francisco speech is still felt—except now the beneficiary is his son.  

No matter who wins this year’s presidential race, the Democratic nomination will be open in 2016, and Andrew Cuomo is high on the list of potential candidates. There’s little doubt that Cuomo is interested in running, but in many ways he has the luxury of being able to approach it with the same stature-preserving standoffishness with which his father eyed the 1988 and 1992 races.  

It was reported last week that Andrew Cuomo plans to be essentially invisible at next month’s Democratic convention, showing up only for the last day, staying away from the podium, and farming out the announcement of the New York delegate tally to Sheldon Silver. (This is consistent with the governor's unofficial policy of doing the bare minimum for the president's re-election effort necessary to avoid accusations of outright abandonment.)

For your average nationally ambitious Democrat, this would be unthinkable. A convention is a prime opportunity to build visibility—think how many cable news cameras will be there!—and to connect with the party’s financial and political movers and shakers. And, of course, the example of Mario Cuomo is testament to what a well-received speech can do. It’s safe to assume that most Democrats who want to be in the ’16 mix—like, say, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley—will be looking to milk Charlotte for all it's worth.   

But Andrew’s game plan is basically the same one his father used for his first post-San Francisco convention, in Atlanta in 1988.

Mario had backed out of the ’88 running early, but it was obvious he’d be at or near the top of prospects for 1992, if Michael Dukakis lost that fall (something that actually didn’t seem likely as the convention opened). This time around, there was no major speech by Mario, who instead addressed a New York delegation breakfast and insisted that he was at the convention only as a delegate. This was in sharp contrast to others who craved a place in the ’92 conversation—most notably an ambitious Arkansas governor who finagled a plum speaking slot, then fell flat on his face.  

Rare is the aspiring presidential candidate who can get away with this. When it comes to 2016, for instance, Hillary Clinton obviously can, and Joe Biden probably could too (although many of his actions as VP could easily be construed as positioning for a presidential bid, so he may not be a good example). Besides that, though, Cuomo is really the only other Democratic prospect who doesn’t need to be worrying right now about making a name for himself. After all, he already has one.  

He’s been widely recognized since taking office for his perceived success governing one of the country’s largest states. More than a year-and-a-half into his first term, Cuomo sports an overall approval rating of 73 percent, and a startling 69 percent among Republicans.

He’s done this in part by turning down the partisan noise in Albany, building alliances with Republican legislators and Republican-friendly media voices and outlets and shunning the intensely polarized national stage. (In this sense, it might actually hurt Cuomo to deliver a speech in Charlotte, since the partisan red meat he’d be required to dish out could turn off many of the Republicans here who now give him the benefit of the doubt.)

And thanks to New York’s status as the nation’s media capital, news of his broad popularity and signature achievements has been broadcast across the country, a perk that few other governors enjoy.

But at the heart of Andrew’s enviable positioning is still his father and that 1984 speech, which made the Cuomo name famous—and synonymous with the Democratic Party’s progressive ideals. It has made Democrats, and media members, pay special attention to Andrew’s rise, and to treat him as a future presidential candidate virtually from the minute he took office. It’s also given him latitude to make those politically invaluable inroads with Republicans.

Andrew is not immune to charges of ideological heresy, but when your last name is Cuomo, it’s a much harder case to prove—especially when your resume includes legalization of same-sex marriage, a truly landmark progressive feat.  

That said, Andrew doesn’t quite loom over the ’16 landscape the way his father did in ‘88 and (especially) ‘92. Polling has consistently shown Hillary Clinton would be the runaway favorite if she decides to run, to the point that there's reason to doubt Andrew would even run against her.

Biden is also interested (and also likely to defer to Hillary); that would be a fairer fight for Cuomo, but still a tough one.

It’s only when you take those two out of the mix that Cuomo stands as the undisputed heavyweight in the mix. He’s also less tested in the spotlight than his father was, rarely speaking to the press or delivering high-profile speeches. Mario’s ability to inspire the masses was at the heart of his appeal; for all we know now, Andrew might put them to sleep.   

If he wants to take the plunge, Andrew will have to do more in the run-up to ’16 than his father did in the run-up to ’92. But he’s already built a durable enough profile to ensure that people are talking and thinking about a Cuomo presidential bid, without submitting to the rhythms of this election season, or to the short-term needs of his party. 

Steve Kornacki is a political writer for Salon and co-host of MSNBC's "The Cycle."