American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic was published last October when then, like now, the pandemic had not ended. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, was the only politician in America who was brazen enough to declare victory over a virus that was killing people daily. Like Donald Trump, another bully from Queens, he seemed to be born with whatever gene makes a human unable to feel shame.
Five months later, the virus is still killing people daily and Cuomo has certainly learned some lessons. You can’t make repeated passes at women, including those who work for you, and assume no one will ever challenge your behavior. You can’t try to hide the true coronavirus death toll in nursing homes and assume the FBI won’t investigate you. You can’t run a state government like a small-time junta, rewarding loyalty over competence, deputizing political operatives with no public health experience to oversee a rollout of life-saving vaccines.
But here we are. New York will soon surpass 50,000 coronavirus deaths. Cuomo’s state currently has the second-highest death toll and death rate in America. Once again, coronavirus cases are on the rise here as Cuomo forges ahead with an aggressive reopening, with each new announcement seemingly timed to counter the latest sexual harassment allegation lodged against him.
At this point, with so much COVID fatigue setting in and the vaccine rollout accelerating, a second lockdown will not be feasible. But New York could certainly be more cautious, and might be if Cuomo wasn’t trying to outrun his scandals with new headlines about increased dining capacity and fans at Yankee Stadium. Contrary to his slogan, his approach is clearly to trust the politics, not the science.
Since Cuomo’s book was published, blaming New York’s high death toll on the virus supposedly sneaking here from Europe, the coronavirus has killed about 15,000 additional people in New York. Many more are getting sick and being transported to the kinds of underfunded hospitals Cuomo is always trying to downsize or close down altogether.
There was no victory to claim in New York. Coronavirus devastated most states in America. Those that held up well, like Washington and Vermont, did not have governors who graced the covers of national magazines, hung out with Ellen DeGeneres and Trevor Noah, or were urged to run against Joe Biden after he had effectively won the Democratic nomination.
Cuomo is currently facing an impeachment investigation, in addition to the FBI probe. The state attorney general is investigating the sexual harassment allegations. For now, Cuomo is in limbo, determined to hold on while ignoring the scandals and the endless calls for his resignation. No news, for Cuomo, is good news.
But the virus never left and history is catching up to him. All of these investigations will, at some point soon, reach their conclusions. Many women are speaking to the attorney general. Each day, the Assembly seems to widen the scope of their inquiry, even if they are slow-walking it in deference to Cuomo’s fading but still substantial power.
Cuomo’s paean to his own pandemic response was supposed to crown his dubious career and effectively disseminate propaganda that would make him beloved by the public forever. It explains away how he dismissed the idea of a shelter-in-place order for New York and pretends he did not, for much of March 2020, compare the coronavirus to the flu while also insisting that fear was at least as dangerous as the disease. And it elides how he forced nursing homes to readmit coronavirus patients, created a far-reaching immunity shield for health-care facilities and hospitals that only Mitch McConnell could dream of, and undercounted deaths in nursing homes.
Had Cuomo been a little less reckless and arrogant, he may have gotten away with all of it. Most journalists and pundits believed he had done the best he could in the first month of the pandemic, even if that was not the case. The real nursing home death toll could’ve been shared with the state legislature.
Cuomo badly wants a fourth term in office to exceed his father’s three. He believes he can outlast the calls for his resignation, the impeachment investigation, the AG investigation, and the federal investigation. He thinks he can run again next year and win. Perhaps he survives.
Yet it’s hard to imagine other powerful Democrats, like the state attorney general herself, Letitia James, won’t take a shot at the wounded Cuomo. Why not? There will be plenty to attack and no new pandemic to save his approval ratings.