Mario Cuomo was a liberal. He was what we call a flaming liberal. He was not just a bleeding heart liberal or a knee jerk liberal. He flamed.
He also flamed out.
For over two decades. I have regarded him as the supreme example of a politician who folded under pressure. He could have been elected President in 1992, but he refused to run for the nomination in 1991.
In February 1991, George H. W. Bush had an 89% popularity rating, courtesy of Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf. The Gulf War was America’s greatest military triumph in terms of lives lost and enemies killed, if we don’t count the American troops whose lives were ruined by depleted uranium radiation — and we don’t. Two decades of rug-sweeping have buried that issue.
Only one President ever had a higher rating: George W. Bush immediately after 9-11. Both Bushes left office with low ratings because of what the economy did to them. War made them heroes. The economy made them chumps.
Governor Cuomo had a clear field in 1991. He could have declared his candidacy for the Democrats’ nomination. He would have gotten it. Bill Clinton was not in a position to challenge Cuomo successfully.
The economy had visibly fallen on its face by late 1991. Technically, the recession was already over. It lasted from July 1990 to March 1991. But it did not appear to be receding in late 1991. Bush was blamed, as Presidents always are, for the Federal Reserve’s policies. Bush had also betrayed his base. He had promised “no new taxes” in his 1988 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. His rhetoric, based on comedian Don Rickles’ famous line — “Read my lips” — which speechwriter Peggy Noonan had appropriated in the name of the People, had driven this promise into the minds of the voters. Then he raised taxes in 1990, with Congress’s help. The recession could be blamed on him, and it was.
James Carville sealed Bush’s fate with his famous campaign slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
If Mario Cuomo had had the courage of his convictions, his image would now be on those public school calendars with all the Presidents’ portraits. But he wimped out.
A politician who is afraid to lose will always be hamstrung. His own self-doubt will undermine him.
Bill Clinton was not afraid to lose an election. So, he won. He became a candidate for the nomination when Bush was flying high. Bush crashed, along with the economy. By the time Clinton got the nomination in 1992, Bush’s goose was cooked. James Carville’s strategy buried Bush’s re-election campaign. Yet it could have been Cuomo’s strategy.
Bill Clinton accomplished nothing much as President. He spent eight years doing it. He will be remembered for only one line: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” In second place: “I feel your pain.” Both were lies. He got away with both of them. He charmed his way out. The House impeached him for perjury. The Senate did not convict.
Cuomo would have pushed through a lot of liberal policies in his first term. He would have had a Democrat Congress behind him. He had an agenda. Clinton pushed through nothing of significance in two terms. Clinton was a charmer. But that was all he ever had: charm. He had no iron-clad agenda. He had no liberal convictions that he was willing to put on the line.
Cuomo was afraid to lose the election. Clinton was afraid to compromise his charm. Both of them refused to play hardball.
Cuomo is the consummate modern example of an American politician who had the brass ring within his grasp, but got off the merry-go-round to ride the ferris wheel instead.