Cuomo articulates a national message

September 23, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Paul West covers national politics for The Sun

ALBANY, N.Y. — Albany, N.Y.-- Playing tour guide, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo ducks through an unmarked door in his Capitol study into an executive chamber that must be the grandest in America.

Lined with acres of sumptuous Philippine mahogaony and gilded leather, the ceremonial office is a breathtaking throwback to a time when New York truly was the Empire State.

"Who," Mr. Cuomo asks teasingly amid the splendor, "would want to be anything but governor?"

Try Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, for starters. Also, Charles Evans Hughes, Alfred E. Smith, Thomas E. Dewey, W. Averell Harriman and Nelson A. Rockefeller. Each found the Statehouse in Albany too confining for his ambitions. And Mr. Cuomo, despite carefully crafted protests to the contrary, seems no different from his predecessors.

This fall, the 58-year-old New Yorker is seeking a third term as governor, against minimal opposition. It's been reported that as many as 19 potential Republican candidates turned down the chance to run against him before Pierre A. Rinfret, an unknown who wasn't even a registered Republican at the time, took the GOP nomination. Mr. Cuomo's popularity has slumped a bit, along with his state's economy. Still, he's a cinch to win in November; the only question is by how much.

As Mr. Cuomo presents his case for re-election, he is also articulating the most fully developed national message of any potential 1992 Democratic presidential nominee. His themes are those of an outsider, which just happens to be the kind of candidate some strategists think the Democrats need to beat George Bush.

Mr. Cuomo seldom misses an opportunity to play on public discontent with Washington. He blames it for problems ranging from crime and drug abuse to higher taxes and racial division.

More federal spending is needed, he says, for early childhood education, for AIDS, housing, roads, research and development and job training. For proof that the federal government can come up with the funds, he cites the massive savings and loan bailout, projected to cost $500 billion or more. "How the hell can you [Washington] do it and tell us there is no money for children? There is no money for [fighting] drugs? There is no money for education?" he thunders to supporters.

From his perch in the economically shaky Northeast, he sees recession staring the country in the face, and he faults national leaders for failing to head it off. That includes Democrats, who must agree to make cuts in entitlement programs. "We know that it is not the wallet Washington lacks; it is the will," the governor said in a recent speech, turning around a line from President Bush's inaugural address.

Last year, with Mr. Bush at record approval ratings in the polls, Mr. Cuomo became the first prominent Democrat to bash the president (though he has only high praise for Mr. Bush's handling of the Persian Gulf situation).

He would like nothing more, it seems, than to put Mr. Bush back in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, whose reputation has shrunk considerably since he left office. Few Republicans invoke the Reagan name any more, but Mr. Cuomo is doing his best to keep it alive. The New Yorker presents himself as an antidote to Reagan-Bush; he's the 1990s candidate who fought the excesses of the 1980s.

"The last 10 years are relevant. The last 10 years are one piece," he said in an interview. "I'm getting at values. I'm getting at our mistake, Democrats, our failure of leadership."

One top Cuomo aide bills a potential Cuomo vs. Bush matchup as "compassion versus greed." Mr. Cuomo himself ridicules Republicans' faith in free markets and their disdain for government. Over the past decade, he says, their policies have fragmented the nation, widened the gap between rich and poor and led to a dangerous dependence on foreigners to finance the massive federal debt. While Europe is moving toward economic union in 1992, the United States "is growing weaker," he says.

Class warfare rhetoric is on the upsurge this election year, and Mr. Cuomo is leading the charge. Whenever he can, he drops populist applause lines on working-class audiences. (His current favorite, on the qualities of a good government official: "It's important that the people who are in charge of the food should have been hungry once or twice in their lives.").

pTC He has taken up the cause of cutting Social Security taxes, a tough sell politically, arguing the need for a more progressive tax system. The last two Republican administrations, he contends, have "ripped off" low- and middle-income workers to pay for excessive tax breaks for the rich. He would reverse that trend by sharply raising tax rates for wealthy Americans.

When petroleum prices jumped last month, the governor said the federal government should pressure the big oil companies ("beat them over the head") to cut prices at the pump and, if necessary, impose emergency price controls. He doesn't rule out higher energy taxes, including a big increase in the gasoline tax.

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