Andrew Cuomo Quietly Builds His 2016 Case

Andrew Cuomo Quietly Builds His 2016 Case

By Scott Conroy - June 21, 2013

ALBANY, N.Y. -- A young aide stood impatiently beside the neat rows of folding chairs that lined the ornate executive chamber of the New York State Capitol on Wednesday afternoon.

Andrew Cuomo’s press conference had already entered its second hour, despite the many demands on the governor’s time with just two days remaining in the 2013 legislative session.

Seizing upon a split-second pause, the aide turned to the members of the media and shouted -- for the third time -- “Last question!”

And for a third time, Cuomo ignored him, fielding an additional dozen inquiries from the aggressive New York capital press corps on hot-button topics ranging from casinos to abortion rights to marijuana decriminalization.

The typically media-cautious governor was on a roll.

Besides, with so many important issues still unresolved, there was little chance that anyone would ask him The Question -- whether he is preparing to run for president in 2016.

“By all accounts, we will have had an extraordinary session, OK?” Cuomo said, looking hypnotically intense. “Extraordinary.”

Not even Cuomo’s harshest critics in Albany could argue with that assessment.

Among the achievements the former state attorney general steered through the New York legislature over the last five months: a landmark gun-control law, his third on-time budget in a row, a boost in the minimum wage, new teacher evaluation standards, and a development-boosting initiative for economically distressed upstate New York.

With two days remaining in the legislative session, the hard-charging Cuomo wasn’t done yet, as he laid out a forceful defense of an abortion rights bill that was among his most controversial proposals of the session.

As Cuomo outlined his case for how the bill would merely align New York’s abortion statutes with national law, his dark-brown eyes grew wider. One by one, the former assistant district attorney dismissed the counterarguments of opponents, several times pausing to acknowledge that he “respects” both the pro-choice and pro-life positions, though he has been the former his entire life.

What Cuomo didn’t appreciate, he explained, was inaction and ambivalence.

For legislators who preferred not to vote on the measure at all, he offered a clear response: “No, no, no, no, no,” Cuomo said, waving his finger in the air, in the manner of an imposing NBA shot-blocker.

Cuomo is an enforcer, but one who acts with an end-game in sight, one that typically entails compromise along the way.

“This is a guy who listens better than anybody,” one of the governor’s closest aides told RCP. “He understands where you’re coming from, and he conveys this feeling of ‘I can help you. I’m smart enough, I’m strong enough, I’m committed to whatever issue we’re working on.’ And when you’re a legislator in that room, that’s a very powerful feeling. And it’s not intimidation.”

As the son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo -- who declined efforts to draft him into the 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns, which he would have entered as a front-runner -- Andrew Cuomo’s own White House ambitions are simply assumed in Albany.

Less than 2½ years into his first term at the helm of the nation’s third most populous state, Cuomo already ranks among the most accomplished governors in the nation. And in addition to his legislative achievements, he strikes a commanding appearance, enjoys an extensive fundraising network, and possesses natural political instincts on par with any current officeholder.

But there is reason to be skeptical of a Cuomo presidential bid in 2016. While he shares his father’s raw Queens accent, he did not inherit his gift for speechifying, a trait that could have galvanized Democratic primary voters.

Notwithstanding his behind-the-scenes political dexterity, it is difficult to envision the charisma-challenged negotiator inspiring anything approaching the enthusiasm that elevated Barack Obama to the party’s nomination in 2008.

Nor is he regarded as a “true believer” who acts on conviction, political consequences be damned.

Even while pushing through the landmark 2011 law that legalized same-sex marriage in New York -- perhaps his crowning achievement thus far in a first term full of successes -- Cuomo lacked a visceral personal connection with the issue, those around him acknowledge.

“[Gay] marriage, in a way, can serve as a template for understanding him,” one of Cuomo’s longtime confidants said in an interview. “At some point, you go from being a 23-year-old where the issue doesn’t really resonate and it doesn’t have any significance to you, and you wake up and the world has changed. … It was very controlled, and it was very smart. We did not commit to move legislation until we understood how we were going to get it passed, and there was very tight control on what the people who were working with us were doing and saying.”

The rationale for a President Cuomo, should he decide to run, would be basic: If voters are looking for sizzle, they can turn elsewhere. But if the weaknesses of the Obama presidency have created an appetite for a tough and experienced executive with proven results on big issues, Democrats can do no better in 2016 than the man in Albany.

Will Hillary Block His Path?

That case would be compelling if not for the imposing shadow cast by a certain Democratic titan, whose mundane act of joining Twitter created a mini-media frenzy.

The job titles that Hillary Clinton displayed in her abbreviated biography on the social media platform were themselves enough to suggest why an ambitious Democrat like Cuomo might feel checkmated before the race has even begun: wife, mom, first lady, senator, secretary of state.

“You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that it’s going to be hard for him to make a dent if Secretary Clinton’s in the way,” said New York-based Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf, noting that Clinton remains particularly popular in the state she represented in the Senate, and has a fundraising base that not only largely overlaps Cuomo’s but supersedes it.

While most observers expect him to yield to Clinton, should she run, few doubt that Cuomo would pounce on the opportunity if she opts out. And more than a few wonder if there is room for both New Yorkers in the 2016 field.

“It’s not an impossibility, and anybody who predicts what is going to happen in politics should be hospitalized,” Sheinkopf said. “He’s done some pretty amazing things. Is he a hard campaigner? The answer is yes. Is he a tireless worker? He certainly is. Would he be competitive? You bet, if he puts his mind to it.”

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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