The Liberal Plan to Unleash Cuomo Against Bush

RICHARD REEVES

September 05, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK. — New York -- This is the New York liberal presidential scenario:

Do nothing until the end of the year, letting President Bush fiddle with foreign-policy acclaim while America burns the edges of the standard of living of most of its own people. Next January, rally around the toughest and most passionate speaker in the Democratic Party.

Then set him loose around the country, ignoring or even praising many of President Bush's foreign policy achievements in fact, ignoring Mr. Bush's campaigning as much as possible. Just pound out the message that Mr. Bush's rich buddies are robbing the country blind.

The goal is to resurrect the Democrats as a presidential party, beating the president in 20 states if the economy is good, perhaps actually winning the White House if the economy is bad next year.

The candidate of choice, here at least, is Gov. Mario Cuomo, not because New Yorkers love him or think he has been a great governor. Democrats here like him as a presidential candidate because they can't see anyone else in the party with the kind of formidable persona that can take punishment day after day and keep pounding away.

They think Mr. Cuomo is compelling, tough and mean, a man who can make people listen whether they want to or not a Democratic Ronald Reagan or a political Rocky Marciano.

They may be dreaming. I'm always surprised by politicians, from Montana or from Georgia, who say with certainty their constituents would never vote for a man named ''Mario.'' Maybe, but who knows? This Mario could tell them he's the ''Super Mario Brothers.''

I am also always surprised by Mario's super-thin skin. He may be too defensive and too proud to deflect the nasty fact and nastier innuendo that the Republicans will throw at him. Maybe the Democrats could chip in and hire Nancy Reagan to hide the bad news from him.

Publicly the governor says there is nothing anyone can say or do that would persuade him to run in 1992. That, of course, is different from saying you won't run.

Mr. Cuomo wants to be president. He has left many friends thinking he wants to run this time, reminding some of them that almost no one even knew who Michael Dukakis was in January of 1988. But, publicly last week he described himself as ''an old crocodile'' who could enthusiastically support someone younger, perhaps Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska or Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee.

Whatever Mr. Cuomo finally decides to do, and no matter how many times Mr. Gore and Richard Gephardt and Jay Rockefeller and Bill Bradley say that they are not ready to be president no one ever really is I am persuaded at the moment that a rough, tell-it-like-it-is educational campaign may be the Democrats' best strategy. Who the candidate is may be less important than what he or she says a refreshing change as long as it is not Jesse Jackson, whose message will always be lost in the background of his skin tones.

The Democratic candidate has to cede a lot of foreign policy ground to Bush, but that could help more than hurt. The Democrats named so far have so little foreign policy experience that they may be better off ignoring it than debating it.

The story at home, though, is different. And Bush's version of it is a fable. The president who signs extensions of benefits for the unemployed but won't pay them is a marvelous character for a modern Alice in Wonderland. People are hurting in Free-Market Land and more and more seem to have nowhere to turn.

On Long Island last weekend, Newsday began profiling some of the 40,000 men and women in their circulation area who have lost their jobs during the past two years. ''They are the parents of your children's schoolmate,'' the paper said. ''They are beside you in the supermarket line. . . . They are your neighbors. Here are their stories.''

If things are that bad, and if they get worse, some people may actually prefer turning to Democrats rather than nowhere. But first Democrats specifically the Democratic candidate for president in 1992 have to pound away each and every day, with questions like these: Why are the rich making more money and paying less in taxes each year? Why is everyone else making less money and paying higher taxes? Can you buy a house? Can you send your kids to college? Can you send your parents to a hospital?

Such talk is divisive, of course. It is class warfare. It is the politics of envy. But it is true and painful. And it is the only way a Democratic candidate for president can get the nation to listen. It's a long way from there to the White House next year, but at least the party, such as it is, will be going in the right direction.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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