Cuomo's Inverse Aegis

April 11, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

ALBANY, NEW YORK — Albany, New York.--Mario Cuomo, who always had both the mournful countenance of a basset hound and the serrating bite of a Doberman, is feeling frisky but not friendly. His famous fluency, the product of genuine passions, is the primary reason many Democrats want him to run for president. But the nature of his passions may preclude that.

He is a man emphatically, and with a kind of grim exuberance, out of emotional synch with the country. For now. He believes the emotional high from the war -- a high he seems to find as disturbing as the war -- is perishable, and indeed is perishing as he speaks.

''You,'' says Mr. Cuomo, master of the antecedent-less pronoun, ''are great killers in the desert. You believe in the death penalty.'' Perhaps he means the president, or the current national consensus. But there is no ambiguity about who he is talking about when, in a tone of mingled wonder and disgust, he notes that the president even appeared on tape during the telecast of the NCAA basketball championship, talking about Desert Storm. ''He can't stop talking about it!''

Mr. Cuomo says, facetiously but acidly, that some politician soon ''will wear epaulets and a saber. There definitely will be a saber in the campaign.'' But, he adds, Democrats are not really vulnerable to the brandishing of military symbols. Is, he asks, the crucial criterion a willingness to wage war? Fine. ''Democrats were good at that. Roosevelt was no shirker. Truman dropped the bomb.''

But ''were,'' ''was,'' and ''dropped'' are in the past tense. What he clearly believes, with an urgency that defies disguising, is that the war tapped a dark atavism in America.

We are ''good at killing,'' even, he intimates, comfortable with killing. When the president turns to the domestic agenda, what leads the list? A crime bill featuring expanded uses of the death penalty.

The Democratic Party, he says, owes the country ''a fight on ideas'' and finding ideas better than the president's ''should be easy.'' An administration that can find half-a-trillion dollars for the S&L cleanup but can't find relative pocket change for fighting drugs. . . .

But before you can change the nation's mind, you must change the topic of conversation. And Mr. Cuomo, like many other Democrats, may find that hard. Opposition to force in the Persian Gulf in January is intellectually defensible, but the political chore of making that defense may be incompatible with the need to conduct a forward-focused presidential campaign.

Mr. Cuomo disagrees. He is in his third term and ninth year as governor and knows how long l8 months can be in politics. While he was speaking last week about epaulets and war, the farce in Kuwait (the emir thinking about thinking about taking mincing steps toward democracy, sort of, soon, or sometime, ''God willing'') was counterpoint to the tragedy unfolding in Iraq.

On the graph of national serenity, two lines may be about to cross. One is the descending line tracing diminishing emotional returns from the victory celebrations. The other traces rising revulsion about the chaos, disease, starvation and death that are not really surprising, even in the aftermath of a war waged to enhance peace and stability.

To the rest of the country, the condition of Mr. Cuomo's realm, New York state, is indistinguishable from that of New York City. Were Mr. Cuomo a candidate, his problem would not be that there is a Willie Horton in his record. Rather, his problem would be that New York City is a Willie Horton: scary.

The condition of most states is, if not scary, depressing. There has been, he says, ''a double redistribution of burdens and wealth.'' Tax cuts benefiting the affluent, he says, coincided with cuts in federal support for social programs. These cuts now coincide with a recession, forcing states into increased reliance on regressive sales and property taxes.

Recalling that in his first state-of-the-state message less than a decade ago he did not need to deal with AIDS or the homeless, he says, ''We must share our wealth in ways we have been reluctant to do.''

All this is at least arguable. But before it can be argued, the country must change the course of its current conversation. Is Mr. Cuomo fluent enough to do that? Probably not. But on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, he might enjoy being the first Italian-American to contest for the job of setting the nation's public agenda.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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