HYANNIS, MASS. — FOR NEARLY an hour here the other day before a U.S. mayors' conference, New York's Gov. Mario Cuomo delivered a spellbinding indictment of the Bush administration for dumping national responsibilities on the states and cities.
He complained of "the fend-for-yourself-federists" who under the label of "The New Federalism" were forcing mayors and governors to pick up costly programs and raise the taxes locally to pay for them.
Cuomo decried an administration policy of "twin redistribution" that "passed the buck to the states and cities" and at the same time "reduced taxes on the wealthiest people by increasing taxes on the poor and middle class." The worst part of it, he said, was that nobody noticed. "It's a game and they get away with it," he said, "because the people don't know.
If only the Democrats would get the message out, he said, Bush could be beaten in 1992, "and that's why I keep talking."
As soon as Cuomo had finished his speech to the predominantly Democratic group, Mayor Ray Flynn of Boston, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, posed the obvious question. What role was Cuomo prepared to play to get that message out?
"I'll do anything you ask me to do," Cuomo replied, adding after only the briefest pause, "as governor." And later, asked whether he would be the messenger as candidate, he said: "There are better instruments for the message. . . . If I can make a contribution, I'll make my case. I'll be in there. I'll make the pitch, I'll make my contribution. But I don't think my state has ever needed a governor more than it does now, and that's the commitment I'll make."
And so, after dancing the girl around the floor and showing her his fanciest footwork, the Fred Astaire of political oratory was showing her to her seat. She would have to find somebody else to take her home.
One suggestion from Cuomo was that the Democrats in Congress as a group craft the message by passing their own domestic agenda and forcing Bush to veto it. That way, he insisted, voters would know where the Democrats and Bush really stood, and they would vote accordingly in 1992.
But Cuomo at the same time acknowledged that once the Democratic message is crafted, it will need the right candidate to deliver it. He just continued to insist that it was not Mario Cuomo.
The governor's trip to Hyannis to address the mayors had generated the usual speculation that despite his denials of interest in seeking the presidency next year, he might just be starting out on a series of speeches to test sentiment for a candidacy. Instead, he recited his same old line -- that the message is more important than the messenger, and that there are other Democrats who can deliver it better than he can.
That is a judgment that is not widely shared by others. His speech here was a tour de force of the case against the Reagan-Bush years of neglect of domestic problems and the shunting of them to the cities and states without the resources to pay for them.
Cuomo cited polls indicating that while Bush is personally very popular, Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This, he said, provides the opening for a successful Democratic challenge next year, once people are made aware of what's happening on the domestic front.
But for all his eloquence, Cuomo also sounded like an old Democrat whose answer to problems is more money. Repeatedly he lamented the failure of Washington to send more to cities and states to pay for answers to national problems like the drug epidemic that, he said, should be borne as a national responsibility.
After his speech, there were more questions from reporters about his availability to be the messenger as the Democratic candidate, and again he greeted them with impatience. But when asked whether he was committing himself to serve out his current four-year term as governor, he fell back on his standard line that he has "no plans to make any plans" to seek the presidency.
Cuomo could easily end all the dancing around by saying flatly that he will finish out his third term, which runs through 1994. If he is tired of the questions, he can thus shut them off once and for all. But he doesn't, and so the speculation continues -- along with the suspicion that that's what he really wants.