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President Cuomo
The bold New York governor who brought same-sex marriage to the Empire State has become a civil rights hero — and a 2016 contender 
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
I

f you're old enough, you may find a use for those "Cuomo for President" buttons from the 80s and 90s that you threw in the back of a drawer way back when. That is, assuming they only flaunt a last name: Mario, who would have won, declined to run. But after just six months in father Mario's old job as governor of New York, another Cuomo — Andrew  has defining achievements that could position him to run and win in 2016. 

I predicted Andrew Cuomo's rise to Ben Smith of Politico in a conversation several weeks ago. Then, the governor was beginning — and has since successfully continued  to mastermind the passage of a marriage equality law in New York. Lo and behold, Cuomo's victory late Friday night, when the Republican-controlled State Senate voted in favor of same-sex marriage, triggered blog posts and headlines like Sunday morning's lead item on the Politico site: "Cuomo jumpstarts 2016 speculation." The triumph of marriage equality in the Empire State, with its central place in finance, media, and the world of ideas, was a historic event in its own right. But it will also bend history for Cuomo, the Democratic Party, and even in the end, the GOP. 

Andrew Cuomo has demonstrated a courage of conviction that many doubted.

The marriage bill marked the culmination of Cuomo's extraordinary record since January, a half year when he's gained more progress, on a broader agenda, than most governors venture in four or eight years. And that's why there's more to his new strength as a potential national candidate in this civil rights breakthrough. 

The breakthrough also sets a benchmark that will benefit Cuomo and test every Democratic aspirant in 2016. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is a relative rarity in the likely field; he can say he's for marriage equality. But Cuomo got it done. So watch O'Malley turn hard to the task in the 2012 legislative session. 

The rest of next time's Democratic roster has even more catching up to do. 

While President Obama "evolves" — and he'd be better off reaching the obvious conclusion forthwith than straddling endlessly — Hillary Clinton will have to make her own move if she wants to run again. In 2008, she initially held her ground on the Iraq War, defending her vote on the resolution that authorized the invasion; soon enough, she had to disclaim that vote as a mistake. To compete in 2016, she'll be compelled to concede that her support of civil unions is insufficient  that marriage, despite her earlier statements, doesn't have to be solely between a man and a woman. 

Others will have to undertake a similar journey  if not out of conviction or even mere political convenience, then as a matter of sheer necessity. The favorite of the Blue Dog remnant, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, has opposed both civil unions and marriage equality. He has a choice – change, or occupy the vacuous space formerly held by former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a kind of contrived, milquetoast centrism that is a road to defeat, not the nomination. Democrats will never pick a candidate who's to the right of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on this issue. 

Indeed, the center of the country as a whole is steadily shifting, too. Leading Republicans, like former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman and billionaire hedge fund investor Paul Singer, pressed state senators in their own party to provide the margin of passage for Cuomo's marriage proposal. And despite the bigoted, conspiratorial fulminations of Michele Bachmann, who once hid in the bushes to spy on a gay rights rally, her rivals for 2012 who might actually have a chance to win in November are anything but eager to sound this right-wing trumpet.

Mitt Romney checks off the anti-marriage box, but he visibly squirmed when the topic was raised in the New Hampshire GOP debate. He'd rather focus on the economy. Jon Huntsman, who's placing a long-shot wager on civility and a measure of common sense in today's white-hot Republican atmosphere, refuses to back off his past endorsement of civil unions  and adds that as president, he wouldn't interfere with New York's decision to legalize marriage. (Obama operatives regard Huntsman as the toughest opponent, but believe  and hope  that he has no chance of surviving the ideological gauntlet of the primaries.) 

The Democratic Party, and the nation, have traveled farther and faster than anyone would have predicted when Sen. Ted Kennedy first took what seemed like a doomed and lonely stand for marriage equality. The span and speed of change reflect a community determined to liberate itself  and demography as destiny, with younger Americans overwhelmingly in favor of gay marriage, and gay rights in general.

It's true that Cuomo captured this moment, but he also made it. Thus we hear both the political judgment that he's materially advanced his political prospects  which I agree with  and the conventional analysis that he's cleverly tacked left on social issues and right on economics and government spending  which is simplistic and largely wrong. 

He's brought ethics reform to a notoriously dysfunctional state government. He's succeeded in strengthening rent regulations for lower-income tenants in New York City  anything but a conservative measure. He's capped property taxes  which will help middle-class families stay in their homes. He closed a yawning fiscal deficit without resorting to false accounting and contrived math  and signed a balanced budget on time for the first time in years. 

That's where his rightward feint is identified  and liberal critics are exercised. Cuomo refused to extend the surtax on millionaires — just as his father once opposed one  and for the same reason. It could damage the economic health of New York City, drive out high-income earners, and endanger the recovery of the state. You can agree with that or not, but it's a pragmatic judgment and hardly proof of the betrayal of progressive principle. 

While cutting overall state spending, something that hasn't happened in 15 years, Cuomo has managed to preserve, and not shred, the fundamentals of the social safety net. Invoking the threat of layoffs, he has negotiated concessions from public employee unions. And unlike his Republican counterparts in other states  from Wisconsin to New Jersey  he's honored, and not decimated, the right to collective bargaining. His aim was to close the budget gap, not bust the unions. 

The governor emerged from this process with stratospheric approval ratings  and then used them and his formidable gifts of strategic insight and tactical calculation to push through marriage equality. He outmaneuvered the once decisive power of the Archdiocese of New York – and as a Catholic himself, lived out John F. Kennedy's ideal of "an America where no Catholic prelate will tell the president [or a governor] how to act."

Not bad for less than 200 days in office  and good enough to lift someone written off not long ago to the front ranks of 2016 contenders. Of course, as the usual formula has it, it's a long, long way between now and that November. But Cuomo has demonstrated a courage of conviction that many doubted, a remarkable economic stewardship in a troubled time, and legislative skills almost reminiscent of LBJ. We don't know yet what else he will accomplish, or whether he can offer a larger sweep of vision approaching his father's and convey a sense of likability that can connect with Americans beyond the Hudson. But he has vindicated the assessment of a 1990s White House advisor, who still sees him as the best combination of political skill and policy smarts in the Clinton cabinet. 

As the New York State Senate prepared to vote on marriage equality on Friday night, my wife and I were having dinner with David Mixner, a friend for a third of a century and a foundational leader in the gay rights movement. It felt like spending time with Dr. King the night the Voting Rights Act passed. David spoke of memory and hope  of friends lost to AIDS and battles won against the odds. Along the way, he speculated about a President Cuomo in 2016.

Three decades after we thought we might get a President Cuomo, it might actually come to pass. But whatever happens, Andrew Cuomo has raised the bar for Democratic politics and national policy. And he will have a permanent place in the annals of this generation's distinctive battle for civil rights. 

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