Cuomo: the man to beat Bush

Sydney Schanberg

November 04, 1991|By Sydney Schanberg

New York -- STOP FUSSING over the speech, Mario. Just announce. Enough already.

You can't leave New York to run for president, you say, because the state has a whopping budget deficit? Because then you'd be breaking your compact with the voters who sent you to Albany for a third term? That's the kind of bad reasoning you'd drive a bulldozer through were it uttered by a political opponent. You've said yourself that this state and a lot of other ones are going to have these whopping deficits for as long as the Bushies or their lineal descendants are in power. Which means, again as you've said, that this will only change with a different presidency.

So when you look at your own reasoning, what choice do you have? Sure you could paint yourself as the pure and noble local boy who decided he couldn't abandon the old neighborhood in its hour of need. Nice, teary Frank Capra script. Good movie, lousy politics.

In short, Mario, it's time to end the soap-opera suspense and say, "I do."

This proffered advice to the governor of New York is of course the stuff of the columnist's game, prompted this time by Mario Cuomo's latest public conversation with himself, otherwise known as his Dance of the Seven Quandaries.

Cuomo can taste the combat already; he knows he's a better man than George Bush; he wants to run. There are no persuasive reasons not to -- unless they are the personal ones about the stress it will place on family life.

The Republicans fear him more than any other Democrat (another reason why it should be he in the race). They're already cranking up for him, trotting out his negatives, saying he's just another politician from New York (read Sodom and Gomorrah) who doesn't know the country, saying he has no foreign affairs experience, saying that like Michael Dukakis before him, the state he governs is in a mess.

Cuomo, however, is anything but the pacific former governor of Massachusetts, whose performance in his 1988 campaign against Bush suggested that if attacked by a mugger demanding "Your money or your life!" he would say: "Could you give me a few minutes to think it over?"

In contrast, when adversaries attack Cuomo, a feral growl comes swiftly rolling out of his viscera and he turns his golden tongue into a lethal weapon. Cuomo's only weakness in these situations has been his excessive competitiveness; even when the debate opponent is down and bleeding, Cuomo sometimes doesn't realize that he would ennoble himself by taking his teeth out of the man's jugular and letting him be carried to an emergency room.

Cuomo also has negatives that are more significant. Journalists who have followed him close up have regularly reported on his shortcomings. These generally have to do with his failure in nine years as governor to live up to the promise of his fine mind and high idealism. He has not translated his exquisite skills as teacher and orator on behalf of common causes into real-life programs and results. He has built lots of prison cells but no significant affordable housing for the poor and middle-class.

Finally, he has not shown himself to be an effective fiscal manager (though to be sure the Reagan-Bush cuts in federal aid have shriveled his options).

All of this is certain to be thrown at him, with garnishes of slime and venom, by the Bush people -- who showed themselves in 1988 to be the national champions at spinning dirt (and who did it again just last month against Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings).

All this notwithstanding, Cuomo knows that what seemed unthinkable after the gulf war, with everyone hailing Bush as rescuer of the national pride, is now a possibility -- namely, that Bush can be beaten next year.

The "victory" euphoria has been replaced by the bitter taste of the aftermath in which Saddam Hussein, the man Bush called "Hitler," still sits in power in Baghdad.

And Bush's ratings have begun falling steadily as the stalled economy fails to rebound and the unemployment lines grow -- and amid it all, the president persists in his country-club life style. The grumblings in the land are growing louder.

But will people in America's heartland give their votes, and not just their sentiments, to Cuomo? Will they believe that, as badly as the Republicans have botched the economy, a Democrat has the answer to its renaissance, given the caricature that the Democratic party has turned into?

Those are questions that a strong campaign would decide. But there's not likely to be a strong campaign without Cuomo. While some of the already announced Democratic candidates have laudable qualifications, none has the heft and stature of the New York governor.

The country deserves a real contest. It's time for Cuomo to stop ruminating and start running.

It's time for the New York governor to end the soap-opera suspense and finally to say, 'I do.'

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