During a recent radio conversation with WAMC’s Alan Chartock, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a claim that anyone who has observed his long career in government knows he never would have made eight, four or even two years ago.
He called himself a “progressive.”. He also went on to assert that among the records of his fellow Democrats in the state legislature, the Congress and the dozen or more announced presidential candidates; his was the record of a “real” progressive.
It wouldn’t be Cuomo if there weren’t at least a hint of criticism in that remark.
As veiled but obvious payback for the rebuke he received over his proposed plans with Amazon in New York City, he was calling out the progressive credentials of those opposing that plan more self-styled than substantive.
Aspiring to things is all well and good, he argued; but what really counts is a record of accomplishment.
He does have one.
During his tenure, the governor has advocated, presided over and helped enact a number of policies and initiatives generally acknowledged as “progressive.”
And the list is not a short one — marriage equality and protection of LBGTQ rights; gun control; a graduated minimum wage increase to $15; a free tuition plan at state universities; promoting a host of environmental-protection strategies including the banning of fracking; supporting and enacting criminal justice reforms involving use of bail, treatment of juvenile offenders and the closure of over a dozen prisons; infrastructure projects such as overdue replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge; rigorous opposition to Trump federal tax and immigration policies; and new laws to increase voting rights and better regulate campaign financing.
His critics, though, decry his treatment of the teacher unions, his embrace of charter schools to the detriment of the public education system, his strong ties to Wall Street and his open feud with Bill deBlasio, the more outwardly liberal mayor of New York City.
They say that, for decades, he and other “establishment” Democrats turned their collective backs on the principles of the New Deal and accepted the Reagan dictum that government should shrink from engineering solutions to societal problems and embrace the agenda of corporate and commercial interests.
They contend that he waits to determine the direction of the political wind and then acts only when compelled.
They complain that many of the progressive reforms over which he has presided could have been enacted earlier, were it not for his unwillingness to confront the Senate Democrats that allied with Republicans during his first two terms and prevented the progressive Democratic majority from taking control of the chamber.
To his detractors, this particular reticence proves that Cuomo is no true progressive, but rather an opportunist whose political beliefs change to conform to emerging and then prevailing trends.
To be a true progressive, must a leader possess a Quixote-like quality that openly and willingly tilts at windmills, as it were?
Or can a leader who coldly assesses what is within the realm of possibility and then acts accordingly also be a true progressive?
Politics at its core might be best described as the art of achieving the aspirational through a keen ability to pragmatically perceive — and then skillfully utilize — timing and opportunity.
Idealists are apt to discount this as a skill at all and argue that the mark of true leadership is both the willingness and ability to create the circumstances necessary for achieving the aspirational, even against long odds.
Are idealism and pragmatism opposing values?
Is this just another regrettable example of Democratic infighting — the party’s proverbial “circular firing squad” where perfect is made the enemy of good?
What do the terms we breezily cast about today — “liberal,” “progressive,” “socialist,” “centrist,” “conservative,” “nationalist,” “populist” — really mean anyway? There’s no universal agreement over how each are defined. Cuomo and his critics are perfect exemplars.
Far from nailing things down, blithely placing labels on ideas, policies and people are just efforts at buttonholing them in a way that only serves the intentions of those applying the tags. They mean whatever anyone wants them to mean. It’s lazy shorthand designed to defeat and replace deeper thought and reflection.
Political tacticians know this better than anyone. “Branding” and “redefining” may be clever strategy, but they’re just forms of political propaganda.
You say pot(ay)to and I say pot(ah)to. Maybe we need more than labels to tell us who our leaders really are.
Is Cuomo a “real” progressive? You tell me.
John Figliozzi is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.