Mario Cuomo, who died Thursday at age 82, once famously said that while “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” His legacy speaks almost perfectly to these words. Cuomo was a spellbinding orator, but as a politician he was never capable of translating his eloquent words into tangible results.
As governor of New York he memorably vetoed bill after bill establishing the death penalty; yet he also presided over the extraordinary growth of the state’s prison population. He spoke forcefully about the need for activist government to lend a helping hand to those in need; but his tenure as governor of New York coincided with the embrace of Reagan-style conservatism and an assault on the welfare state rather than a generous expansion. Indeed, even in making state government work more effectively for its citizens, Cuomo’s performance was underwhelming.
Like many Democrats in the 1980s, Cuomo spent as much time protecting the gains made during the New Deal and the Great Society as he did trying to expand them. His 1984 speech at the Democratic National Convention — for which he is best remembered — speaks directly to that issue. It is a speech that liberal Democrats love, and for good reason. With the Reagan Revolution at its virtual apogee, along came Cuomo to tell the American people that all that glittered was not gold.
“A shining city is perhaps all the president sees,” said Cuomo. “But there’s another city . . . the part where some people can’t pay their mortgages, and most young people can’t afford one; where students can’t afford the education they need, and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.”
At a time when Democrats too often tried to out-Republican Republicans, Cuomo made clear the divide between the two parties. “The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old . . . young . . . and weak are left behind by the side of the trail . . . We Democrats believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once.”
These are beautiful words. But don’t call it a great “political” speech. This was the keynote address for a party that won only a single state in the 1984 election. Nothing could have saved Walter Mondale that year, but what’s often forgotten about Cuomo’s speech is that in reflecting the core beliefs of the Democratic Party he was decidedly out of tune with the tenor of the times.
In 1984, Americans were generally happy with the direction of the country. Cuomo’s evocation of the “more and more people who need help but can’t find it” as well as his talk of the nation’s cities where elderly people tremble in basements, people sleep in gutters, and young people give their lives away to drug dealers, barely resonated.
Indeed, there is a heavy dose of paternalism in the speech: “We must get the American public to look . . . beyond the showmanship to the
reality . . . We must make the American people understand this deficit because they don’t.” If only Americans could look past Reagan’s “amiability” and “separate the salesman from the product,” Cuomo said, they would vote Democratic.
Cuomo was admirably reflecting a vision of America that looked nothing like the world most Americans saw outside their windows, but he also spoke past them.
The populist politician, who would supplant Cuomo’s vision of the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton, spoke — and governed — far more effectively to the middle class, even if that meant at times veering to the political center. The ideologue would say he did so by selling out what Democrats believed; the cynic would say “he got elected, didn’t he?”
Of course, Cuomo never ran for president, and in 1992 ceded the field to Clinton. Two years later, George Pataki, a little known Republican state legislator, denied him a fourth term. Cuomo — and to some extent the philosophy he advocated — drifted into obscurity.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.