4:20 pm Sep. 5, 20121
Typically, a politician as ambitious as Governor Andrew Cuomo wouldn't dream of sitting out most of his party's national convention.
He'd be running around from event to event, exchanging pleasantries with delegates, schmoozing with national reporters and generally attempting to solidify his political standing.
That’s what Maryland's governor Martin O’Malley did this week (for all the good his corny speech on opening night will have done him). And it’s what Cuomo himself did back in 2000, when he famously had a 23-page itinerary and a “contingent” that included “a California-based public relations consultant.”
But this time around, Cuomo has explained, he had governing to do, and to do it, he needed to be in New York.
His plan is to fly to Charlotte on Thursday, give a fiery-sounding address the New York delegates, feed some kibble to the clamoring, news-starved traveling press, put in an appearance at the president's speech and then head for home.
The costs to Cuomo of this light-footprint approach are few (particularly if Barack Obama loses in November) and the potential benefits are many.
For one thing, this exercise allows Cuomo to maintain the conceit that he’s focusing only on New York.
He's made appearances at a couple of local fund-raisers for Obama and recently did a joint press event with the president upstate. But there's been nothing that anyone could construe, even remotely, as a meaningful digression from the job at hand.
This is important: A key to Cuomo’s viability as a presidential frontrunner is his sky-high approval ratings at home. If his ratings were to fall from their current 70 percent to a more ordinary 40-50 percent, his national stock would drop commensurately. So he has avoided leaving the state or going on national shows or doing anything that might telegraph to New Yorkers the idea that he has no intention of finishing his political career in Albany, a place that is notoriously resistant to Brand New Day narratives.
It's not like Cuomo wants for “buzz,” anyway. As the governor of New York, Cuomo is almost automatically a national figure; it comes with the job. Add to that a famous last name, coming from a father who engaged in one of the most closely monitored presidential flirtations of all time, and top it off with national renown that comes from a successful push to pass marriage equality in New York. Getting the media's attention is never going to be an issue for Cuomo. Making friends with delegates from other states is another thing, but there's still plenty of time for that.
Cuomo's distance from the convention, and from Obama's re-election effort in general, has the added virtue (for him) of keeping him clear of unforced errors. One of the key elements of the Cuomo political biography is the multitude of lessons he learned after a humiliating loss in 2002. In that race for governor, in which he stopped contesting the race a week before Primary Day because he trailed so badly, the young candidate came off as brash or, in the words of Jake Tapper, a “dick” and an “asshole.”
But a political wunderkind is as good as his ability to make adjustments, and Cuomo—who, like George W. Bush, started out in politics working on his father’s campaigns and functioning as a loyal enforcer—would do just that. Running for attorney general in 2006, the once-outspoken candidate was quieter, avoiding extemporaneous addresses to the press whenever possible, enlisting surrogates to launch attacks for him and waiting for his lesser-known opponents to make mistakes.
He cruised to election.
As if forgetting his own hard-learned lesson, Cuomo would find himself embroiled in controversy during the 2008 presidential primary race, when his mouth once again let him down. This time, acting as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton, he warned Barack Obama, the only African-American candidate in the Democratic field, that he could not simply “shuck and jive” his way out of a press conference.
When it came time to run for governor, Cuomo went back to the less-is-more strategy that works so well for him, by waiting to declare his candidacy almost until the summer of 2010, agreeing to only one debate (whose participation included every minor-party candidate, ensuring he’d only have to speak for a mere handful of minutes) and tightly limiting interviews. The 24-hour cable news station, NY1, posted a countdown clock on its web site noting the number of days and years Cuomo had avoided granting it an interview; NY1 eventually gave up.
Similarly, "helping Barack Obama" is clearly not a sufficiently compelling reason now for Cuomo to walk into a firepit of national media right now, and risk saying the wrong thing.
It wouldn't even take a classic gaffe to set Cuomo back, necessarily. If Cuomo were speaking at the convention, he'd be one of many Democrats, but expectations for him would be extraordinarily high. This is partly the case because of Cuomo's own assessment of his abilities. (In 2000, he was quoted boasting to a convention-goer that he had given a better speech than Ted Kennedy.) But it's also because of Mario. Fair or not, the "tale of two cities" speech is the standard by which Andrew's convention address will be judged.
And of course, Cuomo's light participation in the convention, and in the campaign in general, has preserved the anti-partisan posture that has been such an integral component of Cuomo 2.0. While his cuts to core economic programs, attacks on organized labor and authorization of a G.O.P.-friendly gerrymander have infuriated local Democratic politicians, those politicians have nowhere to go, and don't dare complain.
Here, Cuomo has taken a lesson from Bill Clinton, whose "triangulation" remade the national party and landed him in the White House, and also from his father, whose uncompromising progressive advocacy turned out, in his son's eyes, to have been fatal.
"When you advocate for the poorest people in this country . . . you're going to end up looking like an old-style liberal,” Andrew told the Washington Post back in 1999. “That's what happened to my old man."
An “old-style liberal” might feel compelled to go to the ramparts for his party's embattled leader against the forces of conservatism. Cuomo, admired by Republican leaders and beloved of the New York Post, is beyond that.
Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.