Andrew Cuomo's Flawed Liberalism

The governor is still paying too much attention to the millionaires, and not enough to the masses. By Eric Alterman

Mike Groll / AP Photo

If you take a look behind the dramatic, and in many respects thrilling New York State vote to legalize marriage for all people—gay or straight—one cannot help but conclude that it’s lucky my state is populated by a great many wealthy homosexuals. Because without them, basic human rights for gays—and pretty much every other victim of discrimination--would be at the mercy of the same forces that are destroying almost every other aspect of traditional liberalism in America.

To see the plain truth of our political lives today—that “money talks and bullshit walks”—as one of those ABSCAM criminals so pithily put it, one need only look closely at the backstory to this (genuinely) historic moment. To win the necessary votes for passage, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his team turned not to Republican senators or their constitutents, but to their top-dollar donors. People like former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and the billionaire Paul Singer, who speaks proudly of the “wedding album of my son and son-in-law,” married in Massachusetts, and the hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Daniel Loeb who “had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure.” Within days, Cuomo had $1 million in his Republican gay marriage fund and a “path to victory.”

Cuomo, himself, is a perfect symbol of the transition of American liberalism from an ideology focused on the standing of working people to one based on issues of social and cultural freedom that do not interfere with anyone’s ability to make money hand over fist without paying too much of it in taxes.

Gay marriage advocates initially complained of Cuomo that he did not endorse legally sanctioned same-sex knot-tying until 2006. But to be fair, it was always a forgone conclusion. Cuomo lives in what used to be called “sin” with his girlfriend, Sandra Lee, who has an openly gay brother. He is no prude, just a pragmatist. Ever since Bella Abzug found herself at a fundraiser during her 1970 run for Congress at the Continental Baths—where Bette Midler got her start—gays have become an increasingly important and influential source of funds for New York (and later national) Democrats. (Abzug called her gay adviser, Doug Ireland, and screamed “You cretin. What have you done to me? I’m up here in these fucking baths—filled with guys in towels held up by Bella buttons and some are only wearing the buttons and not the towels!”) Ted Kennedy held the first fundraiser as a presidential candidate among openly gay people during his 1980 campaign and the openly gay author and financial adviser, Andrew Tobias, became Democratic Party Treasurer in1999.

This inexorable march through America’s political institutions has largely been a ground game of paying politicians and winning public opinion—which has been trending both much more friendly to gay rights specifically as well as much more libertarian on all matters. When the numbers reached a sufficient plateau—60 percent in favor of gay marriage in New York—it became easier for a cautious, poll-driven politician like Cuomo to hop on board. That moment is still a ways off nationally; only 53 percent nationwide say they support gay marriage. (Barack Obama, it must be noted, happily accepted the campaign donations of over 600 wealthy gays last Thursday in Manhattan, but was not willing to take the leap into endorsing gay marriage.)

Amidst this moment of joy for so many, a transformation in the nature of American liberalism can be seen in the transition from one New York Governor Cuomo to the next. As one profiler of Andrew’s put it, “Mario was an FDR liberal (and child of immigrants) with an unyielding faith in the government’s power to improve people’s lives; Andrew is a product of the Nixon era, when that faith was tested and the government again had to prove its competence.” That’s a generous way of saying that while he is, with his party, progressive on social issues, Andrew Cuomo sucks up to money just about as energetically as his Republican opposition. His impressive leadership on gay marriage—where he put money to work for social liberal causes—has been matched by an equally intensive commitment to ensuring that the wealthy are not asked to make any special contributions to what used to be called “the public good.” When Cuomo proposed recently that New York would cap annual increases in the amount of property taxes collected annually by school districts and towns at 2 percent a year or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower, he tried to explain to the Old Man that the decision was “operational,” while same sex marriage, he insisted, was “at the heart of leadership and progressive government."

The same liberal Democrat who fights for gay marriage is presiding over a budget agreement that will cost New York City schools 2,600 teachers, 600 more than estimated, and lay off 1,000 city workers, many of whom work in health care for the poor, at a time when the need for both could hardly be greater. Cuomo, who one must sometimes remind oneself, is a Democrat, also fought tooth and nail to ensure the death of New York’s millionaire tax, at exactly the moment when its proceeds might have been able to prevent exactly the kinds of cuts described above. In his willingness to play “bulldog for the rich,” as Michael Powell puts it, he is distinguishable from Roger Ailes’ favorite politician, right-wing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie only in degree, rather than in kind.

There’s a lesson in all this: Yes, the arc of history bends, on occasion, in the direction of justice. But you had better be able to afford the admission price. Sadly the folk who had every right to feel both represented and inspired by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt, Ted Kennedy and Mario Cuomo—the people who Bill Clinton said “work hard and play by the rules” —need not apply.