The death at age 82 of three-term New York Governor Mario Cuomo has pundits speculating on whether he could have risen to the presidency if he had not been deterred by indecision -- he got labeled "Hamlet on the Hudson" -- and the harsh and humiliating atmosphere of campaigning. Cuomo was contemptuous of the moderate agenda set by the Democratic Leadership Council in opposition to more social spending, higher taxes on the wealthy. He felt Bill Clinton sold out by supporting the death penalty, restrictions on civil liberties, punitive welfare-to-work proposals, and by keeping an arms-length distance from organized labor. If Cuomo had run for president successfully in 1988 or 1992, might he have moved the Democratic Party, and the country, to the left on such issues?
Steve Kornacki on MSNBC asks, "What if he had gotten on that plane?"
"It was Dec. 20, 1991, a Friday, and the filing deadline for New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary was at 5 p.m. All eyes, though, were on Albany, New York where 10 weeks of torturous and highly public vacillation were for Gov. Cuomo finally coming to a head. In the statehouse, he and his team sought a last-minute resolution to a budget impasse that – the governor had suggested more than once – represented the only significant obstacle between him and a presidential candidacy. A few miles away, a private plane sat idling at Albany’s airport, ready to whisk Cuomo to the Granite State on a moment’s notice...
Polls showed Cuomo rocketing to the top of the pack if he entered, and when Bush’s approval plummeted into the 40s in December, a trial heat put Cuomo within 5 points of the president...
(My own guess is that Cuomo would have won the nomination, if only because his presence would have dramatically altered how Democrats would have interpreted the subsequent Gennifer Flowers/Bill Clinton scandal – a scandal in which Cuomo’s name played a role.)
Conservative pundit Ed Morrisey is highly skeptical that Cuomo could have won the presidency with his old-fashioned liberal views on reviving the FDR coalition. He wrote on Hotair.com:
Cuomo could have practically walked to the nomination in 1988. People forget how poor the Democratic field was in that cycle, nor how vulnerable the Republican Party was after Iran-Contra and eight years of GOP control of the White House. A Cuomo candidacy would have swamped out the “Seven Dwarves” and Michael Dukakis would not have come close to beating Cuomo to the top of the ticket.
The bigger question was whether Cuomo and his brand of progressive politics would have succeeded in a general election. CBS played the clip from Cuomo’s 1984 speech, but that misses the context and the aftermath. The context was a double-dip recession that had created a high unemployment rate early in Reagan’s first term, but the economy had turned the corner months earlier. The roaring economy would create the greatest post-war expansion in American history and set the stage for a quarter-century of low unemployment and solid growth. Walter Mondale offered a slightly more moderate version of Cuomo’s progressivism … and lost 49 states in the election a few months after that convention speech, even before the economic turnaround had occurred.
Mondale’s experience had to have served as a cautionary tale to Cuomo. The results of the 1984 election exposed just how marginal his and Mondale’s politics actually were with the American people. His reticence turned out to be correct; Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis lost 40 states to George H. W. Bush. Bush successfully painted Dukakis as an out-of-touch Northeastern liberal — a charge that would have stuck even more to Cuomo. Even with Bush weakened in 1992, Cuomo sat out that cycle, and the Democrats chose Bill Clinton instead. He lost his final bid at re-election in 1994 even in liberal New York to George Pataki, which ended his status as a potential nominee. It would take the collapse of the Reagan expansion more than a decade after that to elect someone of Cuomo’s political stripe to the Presidency in 2008.