To run, or not to run? That seems, even today, to be the question.
Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s death yesterday has sparked a wave of nostalgia, particularly among old-school liberals, regarding what might have been. If only Cuomo had run for president in 1992! (Or 1988, for that matter.) Given his name recognition, outstanding rhetorical skills and stature as a big-state governor, he would have almost certainly secured the Democratic nomination and defeated the incumbent president George H. W. Bush. Instead, the “Hamlet-on-the-Hudson”, showing characteristic indecisiveness, dithered away the opportunity, thus allowing the much more moderate (and ethically challenged) Bill Clinton to win election in a three-way race with Bush and Ross Perot, thereby ushering in eight years of Republican-lite policies, eventually Republican congressional control and, not incidentally, an impeachment scandal.
It is easy to understand why Cuomo’s death evokes these feelings, and why old guard liberals in particular still grow wistful reminiscing about the prospect of a Cuomo presidency. As I was reminded today in listening to clips of Cuomo from his frequent appearances with Alan Chartock on the Albany-based public radio station WAMC, the Governor was an engaging, erudite (albeit often prickly) individual who never lost touch with his working class ethnic roots. Perhaps no speech brought out these qualities more effectively than did his much-praised “Tale of Two Cities” keynote address on behalf of Walter Mondale at the 1984 presidential convention, an excerpt of which you can see here.
So why didn’t Cuomo run? When, in December 1991, on the cusp of the filing deadline for the 1992 New Hampshire primary, Cuomo announced his decision not to seek the presidency, he cited his obligations as Governor of New York, noting in particular the need to negotiate a solution with statehouse Republicans to a burgeoning budget deficit. Disappointed supporters argued that this essentially allowed New York Republicans to hold Cuomo’s presidential ambitions hostage to their obstructionist budget tactics. Many felt there had to be a deeper reason to explain Cuomo’s decision – a skeleton in the closet perhaps, or an unwillingness to do the dirty work necessary to win election.
I’ve always felt there was a simpler, more prosaic explanation for Cuomo’s reluctance to run – one that usually proves decisive for most politicians contemplating a campaign for higher office: he didn’t think he could win. The plain fact is that despite his many strong qualities, Cuomo was a northeast, big government New Deal liberal governing – and contemplating a presidential run – in the age of Reagan. It was never very clear how well this brand of liberalism would play on the national stage at that time. For what it is worth, national polls did not find much public support for Democrats nominating a “liberal” as opposed to a more moderate presidential candidate. The two previous presidential elections saw a liberal Senator Walter Mondale and a liberal Governor (at least on social issues) Michael Dukakis beaten by Republicans Reagan and Bush, respectively. And in 1980, the “liberal lion” Ted Kennedy had failed to wrest the Democratic nomination from Jimmy Carter. To be sure, in late 1991 President Bush was far more vulnerable than he was three years earlier, to say nothing of Reagan in 1984. But at the time Cuomo made his decision not to run, polls still had Bush defeating him in a head-to-head matchup although Bush’s lead over his potential Democratic rivals was shrinking. Ultimately, however, it was Bill Clinton, a moderate member of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who won the 1992 election while espousing a “third way” of politics predicated on rejecting the left-leaning policies embraced by Mondale and other Democratic liberals. Cuomo, meanwhile, was defeated two years later in a bid for a 4th term by “no-name” Republican George Pataki.
Indeed, it was never certain that Cuomo, despite his superior name recognition, would even win the Democratic nomination. Although initial polls showed him winning about 30% of the vote compared to his Democratic rivals, that may have represented Cuomo’s ceiling, much as Howard Dean seemed unable to break the 25% level when he led the Democratic field in late 2003. Certainly Cuomo’s support was much less in the South where Clinton ran exceptionally well. Indeed, many pundits at that time suggested that the only Democrats who could win the presidency were moderate southern politicians. In his oral history, former Bush chief of staff John Sununu remembers meeting with Bush advisers early in 1991 to discuss the upcoming reelection campaign: “The last thing we did is everybody went around the table and said whom they thought was going to get the nomination on the Democratic side and everybody was saying Cuomo, and I said Clinton. And they said, Who is Clinton? And I said, If Cuomo runs in the primary against Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton will eat his lunch… That’s how out of touch they were with the real threat that was there.” Sandy Berger, who would later become Clinton’s national security adviser, recalled that Clinton, who never lacked for confidence, wanted Cuomo to run so that Clinton could position himself as the giant killer.
It is, of course, impossible to know with certainty what the outcome of a Clinton-Cuomo nomination fight would have been, but if one replays the sequence of primaries, particularly the southern-focused “Super Tuesday” contests, it seems apparent that Cuomo faced a very difficult path to victory. This won’t stop Cuomo backers from lamenting what might have been. To run, or not to run? With Mario, it seems, that remains the enduring question. Alas, it will forever remain unanswered.