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opinion | michael a. cohen

Democrats want liberals, not moderates

Take it from me as a New Yorker: There were lots of reasons for Democrats not to vote for Andrew Cuomo in Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary. He’s abrasive; he’s calculating; he’s got an odor of ethical misconduct around him; he’s supported tax cuts for wealthy New Yorkers while cutting education spending; and he acted rudely toward his liberal primary opponent, the phenomenally named Zephyr Teachout.

But perhaps Cuomo’s most glaring issue was that most New York Democrats view him as a moderate, not a liberal, and in today’s Democratic Party that has become something of a liability. The evidence was laid bare on Tuesday night when Teachout, who challenged Cuomo from the left, held him to 62 percent of the Democratic vote. It’s a pretty shocking result, considering that Cuomo has spent about $20 million since 2011 on his reelection (and Teachout has spent around $250,000) and won the endorsements of every major Democratic politician in the state as well as the major labor unions.

It wasn’t just liberal bastions like Manhattan where Cuomo underperformed. In upstate counties that have seen poor economic growth since he took office, Teachout trounced him. Cuomo did best in places with high percentages of union voters and minorities, which suggests that he was likely reliant more on old-school machine politics than he was on energized voters enthusiastic for four more years.

What is perhaps most surprising about Cuomo’s underwhelming performance is that his first term was marked by major liberal accomplishments. He was ahead of the curve — and the president — in pushing New York to legalize same-sex marriage; and in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in getting stronger gun control measures passed by the legislature. But his apparent move to the center on fiscal matters, the undercutting of his anti-corruption commission, and his dalliance with state Republicans — at the expense of Democrats in the State Senate — appeared to have a much greater effect on New York liberals.

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With the caveat that one should be careful in trying to read too much into a low turnout primary election where there was a lack of polling, there are a few lessons that Democrats across the nation should take from Cuomo’s lackluster performance.

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First, moving left on social issues is no longer a way to appeal to liberals; it’s increasingly what Democrats are expected to do. Think about this: Two years ago, President Obama finally came out for same-sex unions. No Democrat today could win the party nomination without being a supporter of gay marriage.

Second, the potential fault line in the Democratic Party is on economic issues. Cutting taxes, proposing grand bargains, and slashing social spending might have been smart politics when Democrats were regularly being derided as tax and spenders, but today it goes over like a lead balloon. This has yet to become a highly divisive issue, but the potential is there.

Third, get that post-partisan rhetoric out of here. In a nation that is increasingly polarized along party lines, reaching across the aisle is no longer just verboten for Republicans. With nothing getting accomplished in Washington and after six years of Obama-style playing it cool, one gets the sense that Democrats are not just moving to the left but are looking for a fighter, not a lover.

Lastly, don’t take liberals for granted. Cuomo acted as though he could throw a few social policy crumbs to the left while trying to play footsie with Republicans in Albany. It spurred a backlash. Cuomo was always a long-shot as a presidential wannabe, but Tuesday’s result was likely the final nail in the coffin.

All these lessons may not be applicable to the likely 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. After all, like Cuomo, her strong support among minorities and the party rank-and-file make a successful primary challenge to her somewhat unlikely. But like the results this week in New York, a challenge from the left could prove more than just a little embarrassing for Clinton and could provoke divisions in a party that is united like at no other time in recent memory. That’s perhaps the final lesson to take away from Tuesday’s results; and it’s aimed exclusively at Clinton: Triangulate at your own peril.

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Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.