Andrew Cuomo: the next purple governor of New York

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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So when is the last time you heard a truly progressive Democrat say the following (I am paraphrasing, thus no quotation marks):

I believe we may have reached a critical mass as Democrats: It’s time for a freeze on government spending, a freeze on all taxes, and we should seriously look at tax cuts to encourage private-sector job growth. And regarding the Tea Partiers: I share their anger, I share their frustration, and we need to address their concerns about big government and high deficits.

Last week, I heard such a progressive Democrat talking this way — New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. I was at a Washington fundraiser for Cuomo, whom I have known for many years but especially when he served as HUD secretary under President Clinton.

Andrew Cuomo is an unusual person and unusual politician. He has experienced the pain of disappointment and defeat in a previous effort to run for governor, and the slings and arrows of New York politics and the New York media. Yet he has come out of that tough experience all the better — in my view, graceful and gracious under fire, sticking to the issues, staying on the high road, refusing to get into the muck where his Republican opponent seems to like to dwell.

As President Clinton’s HUD secretary, Cuomo proved that working with business in “free enterprise zones,” through lower taxes and creating private market incentives, could attract housing for the poor and middle class.

The last Democrat who used the kind of uplifting and unifying language I heard from Andrew Cuomo last week was presidential candidate Barack Obama. That message of a “new politics” that transcended “blue” and “red” state categorizations is what drew so many people, especially young people, including my oldest son, to support Barack Obama for president even before he decided to run.

President Obama’s candidacy also drew significant support from normally Republican members of the business community. These are individuals who are concerned about Democratic liberal orthodoxy that seems reflexively anti-private sector and prefers government-run programs over private-sector activity.

They knew that President Obama was liberal on government serving as a social safety net and leveler of the playing field of equal opportunity for all — after all, that was why he chose to be a Democrat and not a Republican. But they saw President Obama as believing in the unusual ideological hybrid that led so many of them to support President Clinton — belief in the private sector as the engine of economic growth and job creation, and minimum interference and regulation to allow it to thrive.

Clearly — and recent remarks by President Obama suggest he realizes this — President Obama and we Democrats have lost that message. We have allowed the conservative Republican message machine — and give them credit, they have done a good job — of labeling Democrats as the “old liberalism” of Big Government and Tax and Spend.

By the way, the same was the case for President Clinton between 1992-94, followed by the Gingrich takeover of the House in the 1994 elections. But then President Clinton in early 1995 made a pivot — and focused on welfare reform, a balanced budget process, and — after standing up to Speaker Gingrich’s threats to shut down the government unless basic social safety-net programs such as Medicare were substantially cut — ended up with balanced budgets, a $1 trillion surplus and a 65 percent job approval rating by the end of his second term.

I believe Andrew Cuomo’s election as governor of New York — which is likely to happen — will provide important support for President Obama and the national Democratic Party leadership to make the same pivot.

Andrew Cuomo can prove by his election and service as New York’s governor — as can President Obama after the November elections, regardless of the results — that it is possible to be both pro-business and progressive, anti-big government while setting priorities that help the poor and the middle class.

Is that asking too much? Unrealistic? I don’t think so. My evidence? I just described the Bill Clinton presidency and the successful Barack Obama presidential campaign.

Lanny Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).