Do you identify with a party that you actually aren’t an official member of?
No big deal – a lot of people have registrations that don’t match their current political thinking. Partisan independence is good.
Except if you’re the sitting governor of New York State. If the Democratic Party has backed you for office throughout your entire life, and made you a titanic figure within it, the least you can do is behave like you’re a member. Right?
Not so for Andrew Cuomo. When asked earlier this month whether he would commit to an effort to take back the state Senate from Republicans, Cuomo said it was “too early for any political conversation like that.”
Too early?! It should be an article of faith that a sitting Democratic governor ought to want Democrats to control the Legislature. Presumably, you run within a party because you agree with its principles. And presumably, your party elects you because you’re going to lead it.
Backing your own team is such a basic principle of politics that I can’t believe I have to explain it. With more members from your party in the Legislature, the easier it is to enact the policies that you believe in – that is, if you believe in the same principles as your party.
What was the official line as to this equivocation? Allegedly, Cuomo is so focused on Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president that wasn’t able to comment. But he says enough in even that.
Clearly, the governor’s major reasoning for remaining in the Democratic Party is on the strength of his connections as a career politician. Cuomo (or his aides) must have seen the light, because the next day he clarified: “I’m a Democrat, I will support Democratic candidates in these elections. … I’ve worked in the Clinton administration and I’m going to support Democrats for the Assembly and the Senate.”
All things considered, that’s a pretty lukewarm statement – and one which I don’t buy for a second. Sure, he may “back” Democrats, but whether he will materially and substantially support his fellow Democrats’ election bids remains an open question.
After all, Cuomo has actually always been wishy-washy on this subject. He’s fought against his own party repeatedly, “privately” backing the turncoat Independent “Democratic” Conference, which handed the GOP control over the Senate in 2012.
Perhaps most tellingly, he’s even gone so far as to appear in ads backing Republican candidates.
It’s not just Senate Democrats who have to worry.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio now appears to be in Cuomo’s crosshairs, according to a well-sourced Wall Street Journal article from earlier this month.
The Journal reports that the governor is looking into an effort to sabotage de Blasio’s re-election, hunting for alternative candidates before the 2017 election.
If Cuomo were to support a primary challenger against New York’s mayor, it would be a slap in the face to the second-most prominent Democrat in the state – and a man demonstrably more committed to progressive policy goals than Cuomo.
aDemocrats should be running around with their hair on fire over all of this. It’s one thing if you’re a private citizen advocating for a primary challenger. After all, I advocated for Zephyr Teachout in her race against Cuomo in 2014. Backing a sitting officeholder isn’t a virtue in itself.
But this goes beyond basic intra-party disagreements when you’re ostensibly the party leader. Can you imagine if President Obama had even for a day declined to back congressional Democrats in midterm elections? Or if he had been trying to primary the Democratic executive of a large, influential state?
Democrats would call it sabotage, make it a major issue and counter by trying to primary him if he was running for re-election. People might even start to wonder if President Obama was a secret Republican.
But the Democratic Party – at the state and national level – doesn’t really seem to mind, or even publicly ask these questions.
Cuomo is likely to get a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention this week and will lead our state’s delegation in Philadelphia. Who knows where his networking will lead him next?
Note that whether Cuomo is ideologically in line with his party isn’t the question. I think there’s a case to be made (and I’ve made it) that Cuomo bandwagons on liberal social issues to distract Democrats from his record of fiscal conservatism.
Though he has supported gay marriage and enacted gun reform, his attacks on public services, education funding, his late-term support for a $15 minimum wage, repeated commitment to gutting our state’s revenue sources, and general pro-corporate policies put him far more in line with the ideology of today’s Republican Party than what he claims is his own.
But hey, being conservative doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a Democrat. Indeed, there was a time when there were many liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats across this country.
If Cuomo wants to be a latter-day conservative Democrat, that’s fine – though odd, given the “sorting out” which has happened between the parties over the last half-century.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: If Andrew Cuomo won’t actively support Democrats in his own state, he shouldn’t be rewarded with a speaking slot at the party’s national convention. And furthermore, Senate Democrats should consider running a serious primary opponent against him in the next election.
If he doesn’t back them, why should they back him?
Steve Keller of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.