Governor Cuomo’s presidential ambitions determine his governing style

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Gov. Cuomo's stand on campaign finance reform is part of a bro

What happened to campaign finance reform?

After a season of elected officials being picked off by scandal after scandal, it seemed a campaign finance reform bill might just pass. After all, everyone in Albany seemed to say that it was a good idea — even Gov. Cuomo. Given that he’s taken up issues and seen them through in the past, it stood to reason he’d do it again.

But with the legislative session at a close, and the bill’s chances of passage withering away, he appears to be impotent on this issue. Some say he’s willing to let the measure die, as it would be unwise for him to close off the spigot of campaign donations sure to provide him with the necessary finances for 2014.

They’re right, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is part of a broader trend: Cuomo’s obvious ambitions for the presidency, and the politicking behind it.

Not passing political campaign finance reform won’t get anyone truly fired up except for good-government watchdog groups. Pretending to try will satisfy those vaguely interested in the matter. On a national stage, it simply won’t matter if obscure Albany lawmakers were caught up in corruption scandals and nothing was done.

So it’s much better to call for vague reform (appear to do the right thing) and let the measure drown unaided than risk a hypocritical backtrack when he needs the support of the power players in 2016.

Not the first time

Horse race speculation for 2016 is ridiculously premature at this point. But this isn’t the first issue that Gov. Cuomo has foot-dragged on — talking a big game but never following through. He has a very reasonable shot at the highest office in the land, and the U.S. presidency is an intoxicating prospect. And Cuomo is neither a man lacking ambition, or for whom political calculus is anathema. Ergo, the question is not whether presidential ambitions are affecting his governance style, but how.

Let’s look at his tenure in the context of a presidential run. Briefly speaking, it seems to be: Avoid controversial issues, give pithy support to issues the left holds dear and build up a conservative economic record to secure financial support. This is why right now, Cuomo is using his finite political capital on tangential issues like gambling and conservative issues like tax-free zones rather than campaign finance or — God forbid — poverty.

His focus on social issues is certain to obfuscate his core economic message, which is deeply conservative. Why do anything to satisfy the liberal base? He’s already won their hearts through social issues. For instance, by the time of the primary contests, the question of gay marriage is likely to have been answered, and in the affirmative. The ads will say: “Gov. Cuomo stood for marriage equality before it was popular, and set the agenda for the nation.”

And it is genuinely important — already — that he helped the bill’s passage. But that by itself does not make one a progressive.

Of course, this makes quite a deal of sense from a 2016 perspective. In the last election, it wasn’t economic issues that got the otherwise-apathetic left motivated — either for or against something — it was the “Save Planned Parenthood” email forwards and the Todd Akin video shares.

There is no way that Team Cuomo isn’t taking notice of this. You can see it through the extremely important but awfully opportune push for women’s equality legislation for this session — something that also appears to have failed but the governor certainly pushed harder on.

Acceptable option

Upon winning the Democratic primary and locking up base support by doing so, Cuomo will then seek to be a merely acceptable option to as many voters as is possible. He doesn’t have to worry that much about alienating his own supporters by tacking to the middle — they’ll just vote against the alternative, and cast their ballots for him in the process. Besides, if recent Republican minority outreach “efforts” are any indication, the changing demographics of the country will continue to work solidly in Democrats’ favor.

The broad middle might be the problem, especially if New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is running against him. To hedge against one of Christie’s biggest strengths, Cuomo has already sacrificed a number of Democratic sacred cows — among them teachers, public sector workers, environmentalists and those in poverty. These are important to Democrats, but tend to be on the losing side of political debates nowadays. And they are more electorally valuable in opposing or ignoring than as a part of his coalition.

This balance will be key to Cuomo’s election — or at least that’s what the calculation appears to be. By being a pro-gay Chris Christie without the Republican Party hanging around his neck, he is in a fantastic position.

Don’t rock the boat

Incumbent upon him now, though, is to avoid doing anything to rock the boat, like he did with gun control. He’s suffered in the polls because of it, and you can bet he won’t do something similar in the future.

Instead, now that he’s taken the opportunity to stick it to the NRA, he’ll use the SAFE act as a shield to show his liberal “cred.” Why go overboard by pushing a substantive issue beyond what’s marginally necessary, when you can just talk a big game instead? The base is probably going to be satisfied by gay marriage, abortion and gun control. (That’s three things — more than enough for a conversation.)

Take note: Last year, Cuomo announced his support for marijuana decriminalization but then didn’t push it. Redistricting reform didn’t happen the way he said it was going to. The minimum wage increase happened despite his worst efforts. Time and time again he underplays his hand on issues where a statement of support is more politically advantageous than following through.

Since it’s obvious when he wants something to pass, it’s obvious when he doesn’t want it to. This might eventually be clear to New Yorkers — who will probably support him anyway — but from outside the New York bubble, it’ll all look a lot more varnished, which is perfect for his presidential prospects.

Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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