Why is Andrew Cuomo liberal now?

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Andrew Cuomo and a rainbow flag. (Azi Paybarah via flickr)
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A conversation with Times Union political reporter Jimmy Vielkind about Cuomo's new agenda, and whether there's anyone left to stand in its way.

Josh: Let's begin with this turn "left," marked by Cuomo's liberal-sounding State of the State earlier this month. You could argue, as Andrew Cuomo has, that this is what he's always stood for. But of course he's essentially been using his own party (and, at times, his president) as a foil since he got into office, and it's worked quite well for him, if the approval ratings are to be believed. Why's he changing now? What is he reacting to?

Jimmy: I think there are several forces that have led to this shift (which, it should be noted, Cuomo denies). 

First, he's getting into the last stretch toward re-election in 2014, and wants to shore up the traditional Democratic power bases. The first two years in office are the time to wield the ax, cause the pain, and hope everyone forgets two years later.  

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Second, there's a chance he might run for president in 2016, and he wants to position himself as a progressive. Or a "progractionary," as our friend Richard Brodsky would put it.   

And third, Democrats have taken a majority of seats* in both houses of the state legislature, paving the way for Democrats to be Democrats.

Josh: The 2016 thing, which entails running in a Democratic primary, seems pretty straightforward.

About the rest: yes, the standard play is to swing the ax early and then please crowds closer election. But that's what officials do when people are angry at them for doing unpopular things which in turn buy them room to do the crowd-pleasing stuff later on. But Cuomo was popular: people liked him with that ax, and he knew it. It's usually not the guy with a 70 percent approval rating who's course-correcting heading into a re-election.

And in terms of the role of the State Senate in forming Cuomo's agenda, don't you think that gives the Senate itself a bit too much credit?

The election, and the fact that Republicans fared poorly across the board, is one thing. But I just have trouble for some reason with the idea that Jeff Klein and his mini-conference have suddenly liberated Andrew Cuomo to govern like a progressive. Even if Dean Skelos hadn't had to submit to Klein's co-leadership, wouldn't Cuomo have been in a position to get what he needed out of the Senate anyway? The Republicans owe their political lives to Cuomo, and wouldn't exactly be in a position to push a conservative agenda even if they'd managed to hold on to a Kleinless majority.

Jimmy: I think we would have heard a much more balanced Cuomo. When I listened to his State of the State speech this year, I thought, "here are a half dozen things that will be hard for the G.O.P. to swallow, and I don't hear a single thing that a Democrat would oppose," as opposed to a balanced approach.

Yes, Cuomo talked about economic development and some unglamorous reforms (unemployment insurance, works comp) that business groups like.

I suspect you would have heard something closer to 2012—proposals that both sides like

with Cuomo making a standard triangulating play, siding variously with the Democrat-dominated Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate, and using the threat of his bully pulpit and the incentive of Getting Shit Done to move things forward.

We did not hear that, and I think the shift is due to the reality that presented itself.   

Cuomo's aides say that he's been talking about the policies he's pushing all along. But "talking about" is a wide category: the man ran for governor with eight policy books. It's hard to find something that he didn't address, at least partially, in the platform.   

The difference is in the two to five items that become his focus during a session, and during a Cuomovangelistic tour of the state.  

Josh: Well let's talk about one of his very big items at the moment, which is guns. Presumably one of the problems with getting any meaningful gun control done earlier was the Republican majority in the State Senate. (I say "presumably" because of course the politics set up a lot different before the shocking event at Sandy Hook, both in terms of Cuomo's motivation to do something about it and the Republicans' willingness to get in the way.) How important is the new Senate coalition in this context?

Jimmy: It's very important, and I think it shows that Jeff Klein is in the driver's seat.   

The Republicans, with minimal trauma or howling, basically let their conference be split on a very difficult issue. Traditionally, the G.O.P. in the State Senate did not do that. The default was inaction if any significant bloc of the conference was opposed to the measure. But what we saw with the gun control legislation was that Dean Skelos, the Republican leader, let the bill come to the floor, even when a majority of his members opposed it, knowing it would pass.   

The first precedent for this was the 2011 vote for same-sex marriage. And the gun vote suggests that it is a new precedent.

Now, what did Skelos get? First, he was able to get provisions inserted in the bill—tougher penalties, an expansion of mandatory mental health treatment provisions—that his members wanted, and that could justify their votes and let the G.O.P. boast a bit. Second, he kept his enemies from opening fire.   

It's a Democratic state, and it's only getting bluer. The G.O.P. realizes that, and realizes that it has to be extremely careful in picking its battles, if its existence as anything other than a naysaying permanent minority is to be respected.

So if a chunk of G.O.P. senators can go for a more moderated version of a progressive priority—like a minimum wage increase that has no indexing, say—and the I.D.C., Cuomo, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are willing to accept that half loaf, I think you're going to see it come to the floor and pass with a majority of Democratic votes.

Until Klein/Cuomo/Silver decide that it's in their interest to ignore the G.O.P. and just negotiate with the Senate's mainstream Democrats, the Republicans will have a seat at the table, which they hope will prove their worth to voters.

And each of those players has a reason to tolerate Skelos: Cuomo because it lets him brag about bipartisanship, Silver because he just wants a basically functional chamber and Klein because he just doesn't like several of the key mainstream Democrats.

Josh: So Skelos is happy just to be at the table, and settles for an outcome on guns that gives his members some cosmetic victory to sell. Will they be this weak on other big issues, when there isn't a national backlash working against them, as there is at the moment on guns? Do they need to make a stand at some point to prove to their constituents (and donors) that they're not just being used?

Jimmy: It's not the donors I'd worry about, because I think Klein, the G.O.P. and Cuomo are all on basically the same page when it comes to the budget. I would worry about the Conservative Party, which provides a critical buttress for many of these G.O.P. senators.

Josh: Ok, so then: At what point to they have something to prove to Michael Long?  

Jimmy: Abortion. Watch the abortion bill. I think that will be Long's line in the sand.

Josh: What's going to happen in the meantime?

Jimmy: The next domino to fall will be the minimum wage. Already, business groups are suggesting they can swallow an increase provided it doesn't include an automatic indexing for inflation. Cuomo is already lining up a coalition of business groups that support it.

This victory for the unions lets Cuomo go less to the mat on campaign finance. The G.O.P. knows that can hurt its long-term prospects, and it will fight on it. Since the average person doesn't care (remember how much people cared about redistricting?), it can be half a loaf.

Also watch casinos. I don't know how that will go, but there's so much money on the table that party lines will melt away. Expect Cuomo to trade off of it. For what, we'll have to wait and see.