New York governor Andrew Cuomo says that America was “never that great,” and he’s entitled to that view, but it would be interesting to know where the U.S. ranks in his personal list of great nations. And it’s amusing to imagine what the late Mario Cuomo, who so frequently praised America for the singular place that it is—“the greatest nation in the only world we know”—would have to say, especially in private, about his impulsive son’s latest outburst. Cuomo delivered his caustic observation at a bill-signing ceremony cum campaign pep rally on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and it might be a mistake to take it for much beyond what it was: just another rhetorical drive-by shooting aimed at Donald Trump, the bête noire of New York Democratic politics.
But let’s unpack it anyway.
“We’re not going to make America great again,” Cuomo said. “It was never that great. We have not reached greatness. We will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged.” Perhaps the governor meant “perfect” when he said “great”—his language skills aren’t profound when he’s in political mode—and that would have the advantage of being true. Humans aspire to perfection, but never achieve it; greatness is a relative goal, reachable but open to mischievous rhetorical abuse.
Perhaps Cuomo was conjuring the spirit of his father’s keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, a carefully composed, skillfully delivered attempted takedown of President Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” campaign theme. But this was an infinitely larger stage in a game played for immensely greater stakes, and Mario Cuomo was a masterful public speaker. At best, Andrew Cuomo’s crack was an uninspired knockoff of his father’s singular statement of principle and purpose. Just as Trump is no Reagan, Andrew is no Mario when it comes to political oratory.
The governor is, however, a serial public blurter, context and potential consequences be damned. Exhibit A: in 2002, with 9/11’s wounds still raw and for no reason that made sense, Cuomo attacked then-Governor George Pataki’s post-terror-attack performance, describing Pataki as Rudy Giuliani’s coat-holder. The remark drove Cuomo from that year’s gubernatorial race and caused so much discord within the state Democratic Party that it might well have ended his career. Less momentous, but more typical, was Cuomo’s recent visit to a black church in Harlem, where he informed the congregation that Jews can’t dance, or his occasional observations that conservatives “have no place in New York.” Most likely, Cuomo was doing what all politicians do, some more artfully than others—pandering.
And pandering, while not held in high esteem, reveals a candidate’s values, associations, and aspirations. By playing up to the “America ain’t that great” crowd, Cuomo may well prosper within the rapidly radicalizing Democratic Party, but he’s also transmitting useful information to the rest of the electorate. For better or for worse, for example, his views on felons’ “rights”—he’s foursquare for them—are every bit as illuminating as his take on American greatness.
Sincerity is another matter. It’s hard to imagine that someone who has so often praised America for its singularly nurturing acceptance of legal immigrants, his grandparents Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo among them, believes that the nation “was never that great.” Which raises a question: How much self-abasement is a candidate riding at over 60 percent in the polls willing to exhibit in exchange for just a few more votes? In the end, it’s all about character.