Cuomo's no to judgeship gives Clinton free hand ON POLITICS

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

April 09, 1993|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Mario Cuomo has taken President Clinton off the hook politically with his public declaration that he isn't interested in the Supreme Court seat being vacated this summer by the retirement of Justice Byron White.

Whether Clinton was serious about naming Cuomo -- that's something we'll never know -- his decision last year to mention the New York governor as the kind of justice he would choose had given rise to great expectations in the liberal community. The focus on Cuomo had become so intense that a decision by Clinton to nominate anyone else would have been seen as a humiliating rejection.

In fact, the choice of Cuomo never made a lot of sense. Although they make a point of saying lavishly complimentary things about one another these days, Clinton and Cuomo have never been a good fit. They enjoyed a rocky relationship all through the 1991 preliminaries to the 1992 presidential campaign that was only papered over by Cuomo's agreeing to deliver the nominating speech at Madison Square Garden. There is an enormous gulf between the cultures in which they grew up and played out their political careers. And they are both prickly and massively self-assured politicians who don't welcome other roosters in their barnyard.

The notion of Cuomo as the ideal choice for the Supreme Court also was based on an inaccurate picture of the New York Democrat. The theory was that Cuomo would be a natural because he enjoys arcane intellectual argument and writes extremely well. The liberals had visions of him as an intellectual counterweight on the court to its most conservative justice, Antonin Scalia.

But Cuomo is also a politician who revels in being in the arena or, as he put it in explaining his decision, on "the front lines" of public activity. He does enjoy intellectual combat and is a master of the science of determining how many nuances can be stuffed on the head of a pin. But he likes to do his arguing with other politicians and reporters out in the open, not holed up -- "entombed" is the word he used in one interview -- in a judicial chamber. He is conspicuously competitive in every respect, an old ballplayer who still loves half-court basketball and a big-time politician who likes to get his way on public policy.

It would be a major surprise if he does not run for a fourth term in Albany next year. He is still smarting at the fact he won "only" 54 percent of the vote, 33 percent more than his closest pursuer, when he was re-elected during tough economic times in 1990. His 65 percent in 1986 was more his style.

In one sense, Cuomo would have been an easy option for Clinton. No one could seriously question the New Yorker's qualifications for the court as a lawyer and public figure, and the liberals were entranced by the notion of a nominee who supports abortion rights and opposes capital punishment. But Clinton has many options with similar histories and issue positions available if he chooses to seek that combination.

In political terms, moreover, the president seems to have a totally free hand in making his choice. His performance in insisting on "diversity" in his government has been widely ridiculed but it also has paid huge dividends in terms of placating Democratic constituency groups. Although women have not won the half of the top-level appointive jobs to which they might be statistically entitled, they have been given a far larger role than even many of the most militant feminists had hoped. The same can be said for blacks and Hispanic-Americans.

The prime concern for the president must be that he find nominee with nothing in his or her past that would put confirmation by the Senate in doubt. This is no time for anyone who didn't pay taxes for a nanny or anyone who has written or spoken in ways that can be exploited against him or her. The nomination will come before the Senate sometime this summer, and the one thing Clinton needs least is a distracting controversy at the same time the health-care reform issue is coming to a head.

Until now the president may have felt fenced in by his ow speculation about Mario Cuomo on a television program a year ago. But Cuomo has given him all the freedom in the world.

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