Mario Cuomo Was Not the Liberal Beacon He's Made Out to Be

The former New York governor, who was laid to rest yesterday, is being mourned as a “forceful defender of liberalism.” In reality, he was a creator of the Democratic center-right and consistent supporter of anti-entitlement crusades.

For anyone who’s followed American politics closely for the past 40 years or so, the headlines following his death were enough to set your teeth on edge: “Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon” (New York Times); “Three-Time Governor; Liberal Leader” (Wall Street Journal). This image of the late politician is even enshrined in Wikipedia: “Cuomo was known for his liberal views and public speeches.”

None of this has much to do with the truth, or Cuomo’s place in history. Indeed, the notion that he was any kind of liberal stems almost entirely from a single speech he delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. The substance of his career tells a different story. 

Cuomo was one of the first, and up to a point, most successful of the center-right New Democrats who took over the party in the 1970s and 1980s and moved it away from its former foundations in the New Deal, the labor movement and the politics of civil rights. As governor, he emphasized budget balancing, income tax reduction and a tough approach to crime. He boasted that he built more prison cells than any governor in the history of the state. A native of New York City, he preferred to work closely with the upstate Republicans who dominated the state legislature, never doing much to help his own party displace them. And he reliably rode to the rescue when Wall Street and the big banks got themselves in trouble (for more on this, consider Cuomo’s role in the shutdown of the Shoreham nuclear power plant).

Most elements of this profile could fit any number of center-right Democrats of the past several decades, including Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bob Kerrey, and Bill Bradlee. While his precise views on national issues were often hard to pin down, he was also firmly in the New Democrat camp when it came to the core of the New Deal state: Social Security and Medicare. In November 1991, when Cuomo was allowing his name to be floated as a presidential candidate, he gave a speech in which he declared that America needed a “national economic growth plan” and called for more spending for education and public utilities such as highways. Offsetting these investments would be cuts in some entitlement programs benefiting the middle class who were getting them, Cuomo declared, “as a want and not a need.”

As Michael Lind pointed out on last month, this was central to the thinking of Cuomo and his ilk: universal programs like Social Security and Medicare, which benefited American across a broad range of income levels and social groups, must be abandoned or radically reworked to make them strictly income-based. In other words, to “means-test” them.

Cuomo followed this line consistently, even after he left the governor’s mansion. In September 2008, with Obama running for president against Republican John McCain, he joined Kerrey, Paul Volcker,and Sam Nunn in signing a full-page ad taken out by anti-Social Security godfather Pete Peterson’s foundation, headlined, “THINK THE CURRENT FINANCIAL CRISIS IS BAD? YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET.” In the upcoming presidential debates, the ad demanded that the candidates be asked, “How will you make fiscal responsibility and intergenerational equity a priority?” The signatories called for a “bipartisan ‘fiscal responsibility commission’ to recommend meaningful reforms of the government’s budget processes and entitlement, health care, and tax systems.” “We owe our country, our children, grandchildren, and future generations of Americans no less,” the September 7 ad concluded.

All the familiar tropes of the Democratic center-right are displayed here: the anxiety to be seen as “fiscally responsible,” the fetishizing of bipartisanship, the acceptance of a dubious generational economics, and the positioning of “entitlements” as the central problem facing the nation. Cuomo’s signature can’t be dismissed as merely endorsing a pious call for cooperation and budgetary prudence: Democrats like him have always been central to the prospects for Social Security and Medicare “reform,” because the Democrats are still seen as the party of the New Deal. Republicans, the traditional opponents of these programs, always gauge their ability to act against these programs by the degree of cooperation they perceive on the other side of the aisle. That’s why it’s fair to say center-right Dems are more dangerous to the survival of Social Security and Medicare than Republicans who attack them more explicitly.

This was the part Mario Cuomo played. Far from being a liberal beacon, he was a key actor in steering the Democratic Party away from the policy orientation that is traditionally thought of as liberal or progressive, and toward a Republicanism Lite that, in the Obama years, has become a political dead-end. The 1984 speech that made his name, like the 2004 convention speech that launched Obama nationally, is a fine piece of sleight-of-hand, full of wonderful sounding phrases that melt into air the closer you examine them. Democrats “believe in only the government we need, but we insist on all the government we need,” Cuomo said. Reverse the order of the two statements, and you get something closer to the reality of how he played politics.

Virtually all that’s left of his legacy is that speech—and the career of his son, Andrew, who lauded him at his funeral yesterday as “the keynote speaker for our better angels.” Ruthlessly ambitious, a political product of the Clinton administration, a Democratic governor who disdains his own party and cultivates Wall Street above all else, Andrew Cuomo is working hard to make sure the New Democrats remain in control of the party well into the future. Those who want to see Social Security preserved, let along updated and expanded, should be very worried.

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