DEMOCRATS who think Mario Cuomo is the candidate they have been waiting for to take back the White House are in for a real surprise. Cuomo offers voters the same thing George
McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis offered them: warmed-over New Deal liberalism, albeit in a more attractive package. In fact, Cuomo may be the weakest Democrat the party could field.
Granted, the New York governor is probably the most oratorically gifted politician in either party today. He is talented, cunning, fearless and has stature. Add to this his combativeness, refreshing for the Democrats after Michael Dukakis' feckless performance, and it's easy to see why many Democrats think a Cuomo candidacy would be a godsend.
But Mario Cuomo is poised to fall flat on his face if he enters the 1992 presidential race.
The expectations for his candidacy are breathtaking. They would be hard for any mortal to live up to -- never mind a candidate who has never been around the presidential track.
Governor Cuomo's indecision over whether he should run has already worn thin with the national news media and his party. His tendency to answer questions with questions will only make him seem vague, argumentative and remote at a time when voters want candor and plain talk. And his thin skin won't help: Attacked by underfinanced Republican challengers in the gubernatorial races of 1986 and 1990, he regularly took the bait when silence would have been the best response.
The Republicans also know to sidestep Cuomo's strengths. He is not vulnerable on the question of his ethnicity or his geographic base. In a country connected by mass communications, Italian-Americans from Queens are not as foreign as they once were to Texans or Nebraskans.
Indeed, Cuomo would benefit from a Republican attack portraying him as a spokesman for minorities. You can almost hear him cite Willie Horton, quotas and Anita Hill in a slashing attack accusing the Republicans of racially and ethnically polarizing America.
But Cuomo won't be so lucky. The Republicans will shoot instead for his Achilles' heel -- his disastrous tenure as governor of New York, the crime-and-taxes capital of the world. He has been a major player, we should be reminded, in every Democratic administration in New York since 1974.
New Yorkers have the worst social services and some of the highest crime and tax rates in the nation. The ever-looming deficits in Albany make Michael Dukakis look like a fiscal genius and model governor.
Mario Cuomo is deft, and he will try to lay the state's ills on President Bush's doorstep. But the governor's anemic showing in 1990, when nearly as many New Yorkers voted for other candidates as voted for him, demonstrates that voters will hold him, and not Washington, responsible.
Even in foreign affairs, where he is a very blank slate, Cuomo is out of the mainstream. Who can forget his proposal to settle the Iraqi conflict by ceding some Kuwaiti territory to Sadam Hussein?
Cuomo will not have to wait for his face-off with President Bush to have his record attacked. The Democratic candidates, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, will see to that. Both have positioned themselves as technocrat-centrists to stand in sharp contrast to Cuomo's old-style politics. Though the Democratic primaries are sufficiently liberal for him to win the nomination, it's not likely that the governor will survive with his status as a giant intact or his ideology unexposed.
No, Cuomo, vetoer of the death penalty, cannot win in 1992 precisely because he is an intelligent and talented man whose political philosophy has failed at home. The smoking wreckage of New York State is there for all to see.
Roger Stone, a political consultant, worked on the Nixon, Reagan and Bush presidential campaigns.