New York governor Andrew Cuomo last week opened a second front in his rhetorical war on the Trump administration’s off-shore oil-drilling initiative, travelling to Lower Manhattan to announce that he would “commission a citizen fleet from throughout the state to go out and interfere with their federal effort just as Winston Churchill did in Dunkirk . . . If you think I’m kidding, I’m not, and I’m going to lead that citizen fleet.”
Apparently, the Empire State will soon have both sanctuary shorelines and a puddle-pirate navy. Never mind the unhappy outcome the last time a dyspeptic state government committed armed assault on the feds. And what’s a splendid little war without inspirational oratory? It’s easy to imagine Cuomo channeling Churchill again: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in Montauk, we shall fight off Amagansett, we shall fight in Southampton and off the Lower Bay, we shall fight at Breezy Point. We shall never surrender.”
This is all nonsense and posturing, of course. New York’s Democratic governor is a two-termer seeking a third, but he faces a challenge in this September’s primary from actress/activist/gadfly Cynthia Nixon. Nixon’s effort is a bit of a windmill-tilt, but while Cuomo sits comfortably atop the polls, Nixon occupies space in his head, and she’s making him a little nuts. Thus the Dunkirk trope. And last month’s bizarre “cease-and-desist” letter to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. And Cuomo’s declaring himself to be the “undocumented” son of “poor immigrants”—which would have surprised his late father, Queens-born, three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo. And the governor’s recent declaration at a Baptist church service in Harlem that, while Catholics lack rhythm, they are “not as without rhythm as some of our Jewish brothers and sisters.”
At first glance, it’s all quite amusing. The problem for New York, though, is that there is scant substantive difference between Cuomo and Nixon. They are both committed progressives. Each exchange between them as the campaign proceeds will likely move the reference points further left. Come next January, when the time for governing returns, the eventual winner will find it difficult to climb out of the public-policy hole dug during the campaign.
Odds are that Cuomo will be that winner, but ask President Hillary Clinton about sure things. Indeed, Clinton’s loss two years ago energized an already-indigo state, making a progressive challenge to business-as-usual this year probably inevitable. Certainly Nixon is well-positioned to take advantage of the new zeitgeist. Gay, schooled in progressive rhetoric, a sophisticated advocate for rich lefty special interests without seeming to be so, and a media darling, she will make an impact. Think of her as an instrument of Hillary’s revenge.
If the zeitgeist is Nixon’s edge, Cuomo’s is incumbency. He already has more than $30 million in his campaign accounts—raised in the gamy New York tradition that rewards winners while starving challengers—and he is a master at deploying public assets to meet electoral needs. No sparrow will fall in New York between now and September without Albany taking note and sending help.
Oddly enough, though, each candidate’s advantages also work against them. Cuomo’s incumbency could prove something of a sea anchor. Yes, he has shifted billions in “economic development” pork around the state, but former key aide Joseph Percoco, heavily invested in those development schemes, has been convicted in Albany’s most deep-seated official corruption scandal in memory. A second round of criminal trials will soon begin. None of this should redound to Cuomo’s benefit.
Meantime, Nixon could be damaged by the complexity and diversity of Democratic politics in New York. The party’s most reliable voting blocs—among them African-American women and Orthodox Jews—tend not to find gay activists appealing, and they react cautiously to renegade outsiders. The zeitgeist, in other words, can cut both ways. The party’s other main power base—the highly transactional public-employee unions—are rarely enthusiastic about insurgencies of any sort. And given the incumbent’s record on gay marriage, guns, and the minimum wage, it’s hard to imagine what Nixon’s substantive beefs with Cuomo might be.
The greatest danger to Cuomo’s future—nationally, if not in this election—is his propensity for combative rhetoric, when he isn’t otherwise putting his foot in his mouth. He is the fellow, after all, who claimed that the Trump tax-reform plan was actually a plot to visit “rape and pillage” on New York. Occasional outbursts can be dismissed, but channeling Churchill regularly will only reinforce Cuomo’s reputation as the not-quite-serious-enough son of one of the Democratic Party’s most accomplished orators. The question is whether the governor can discipline himself to forge a stouter image.
Photo: Don Pollard/Office of the Governor