The walls are closing in on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, despite his desperate attempts to spin things in his favor. Reports that his aides altered a state health department report to hide the number of COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes (after he ordered nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients) intensified calls for his resignation last week. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says that “for the good of the state” he should consider resigning. And Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said it’s time to “seriously consider whether he can effectively meet the needs of the people of New York.”
To make matters worse, Cuomo is also reeling over allegations of a cover-up involving shoddy structural problems plaguing a bridge named after his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo—not to mention the growing list of (now five) women who have accused him of sexual harassment.
The latter allegations represent morally appalling behavior given the asymmetrical power dynamic, not to mention utterly hypocritical behavior from the man who founded the Women’s Equality Party, who signed with fanfare what he boasted was the nation’s strongest workplace anti-harassment law in 2019, and who underwent the training that the law required of all state employees before going on to give one staffer an unwanted kiss at work while trying to “groom” another for a sexual relation that he absurdly tried to spin as “mentoring.”
Nevertheless, Cuomo is stubbornly refusing to resign, reiterating on Sunday that “I was elected by the people of the state. I wasn’t elected by politicians. I’m not going to resign because of allegations.” This line of defense is smart. Because the people elect politicians, it’s hard for anyone else to fire them. Just ask the Democrats who twice impeached Trump. The only real check on political leaders seems to be re-election. In my opinion, this is insufficient.
Part of the problem is the death of ethics and norms. Ideally, we would have a code of honor where leaders self regulate or fall on their sword (and be publicly shamed) if they don’t. But those days are long gone (to the degree they ever existed), and in the absence of a self-policing culture, it’s absurd to think that Cuomo will voluntarily throw himself on the pyre. He won’t. From a purely Machiavellian political standpoint, Cuomo is handling this crisis just as the experts might advise. Fighting back is smarter than doing what was once considered the honorable thing.
Consider, for example, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Cuomo’s former partner on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who (like Cuomo) was a former prosecutor. The “Bridgegate” scandal shut down two of three lanes on the George Washington Bridge (for political revenge) and eventually destroyed his approval ratings, but it didn’t stop him from coasting to re-election two months later—and it certainly didn’t force his resignation. Or consider the case of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who was only held accountable after term limits forced him out of office (and he was later convicted of corruption).
Sex scandals seem to work the same way. Anyone who thinks otherwise should probably consider a comparison of Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. Hart was the presumed frontrunner in the spring of 1987, but he dropped out of the 1988 race after journalists reported on his affairs. Today, he’s little more than a cautionary tale. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton, who lied and denied, left office with sky-high approval ratings.
A more recent case study involves the stories of former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. (Unlike the Cuomo scandal, the Northam and Franken offenses were both committed before they held public office.)
Franken, as you might recall, was accused in 2017 by a talk radio host and former model of giving an unwanted kiss. There was also a photo of her sleeping while on a USO tour, which showed Franken (who was then a comedian) pretending to grope her as she slept. Several other women (some of whom remained anonymous) came forward to allege similar charges. Amid the “Believe Women” “#Me Too” zeitgeist, almost all of Franken’s Senate colleagues, led by New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, called on him to resign—and he did. After a New Yorker investigation cast doubt on the accusations, Franken now symbolizes (to some) the risk of hasty judgment and mob justice.
In 2019, a photo surfaced of Northam from his 1984 medical school yearbook—he appeared to be wearing blackface and posing with someone in a Ku Klux Klan robe. After apologizing, he later claimed neither person in the photo was him. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julián Castro, and Elizabeth Warren all called on him to go, as did various progressives groups like NARAL, the NAACP, and (ironically) MoveOn. Today, Northam is still governor of Virginia. And every day, Northam accomplishes something that will contribute to his legacy—making the scandal just one data point in his life’s narrative. Heck, now he’s even endorsing other Virginia political candidates.
One suspects that Franken could have likewise stuck it out.
To be sure, these examples are not perfectly analogous. One is about race and the other is about sex and power. Northam’s political survival was aided by the fact that his next two successors were disqualified; Virginia’s lieutenant governor simultaneously faced accusations of sexual assault, while the state’s attorney general also admitted to wearing blackface in the past. Good luck replicating those circumstances.
Unlike Franken (a legislator who was trapped in D.C. with his antagonists), Northam was an executive living more obscurely in Richmond, Virginia, and he had greater ability to sign legislation, change the narrative, and weather the storm.
This brings us back to Andrew Cuomo. Like Northam, Cuomo is a governor. But unlike Northam (who faces term limits), Cuomo could conceivably run for re-election. Even if recent events preclude that, the odds are that Cuomo will pull a Northam—that he will continue being governor until his term expires. And during that time, he will burnish his legacy. He’ll pass a budget. When he visits Watertown, people will still say, “Welcome, Governor!” and roll out the red carpet.
Resigning makes the scandal the last word about you. And even if the culmination of these scandals means that Cuomo’s political career is over, he’s much better off if his last day is in January of 2023, not March of 2021.
The incentives are, perhaps, perverse. But you get what you incentivize, and what we get is what we got. Resigning is for saps. If you’re taking bets, history suggests the smart money is still on creepy Cuomo to survive.