CAN I tell you how ridiculous that is? the governor asks pleasantly. He is sitting in a stiff, back-saving chair in the executive mansion, speaking into a phone connected to one of the radio talk shows that are a staple of Cuomo's contacts with the media. In this case the host is a conservative Long Islander who thinks the state is shoving special-education programs down the towns' throats without providing the funds to pay for them. The host is a member of his local school board, and is trying to take the governor to task. But the governor is not interested in being taken to task. "We said, 'You have to educate the children,"' Cuomo explains. "What you're saying is, 'You have to pay for it, governor.' But what are you really saying? You don't want to take care of the disabled children unless I raise income taxes to give you money for it? You won't do it with your own taxes?"
Cuomo listens to the response. A vulpine smile steals across his face. The host has just said that his community will flip if they have to raise property taxes, giving Cuomo the opportunity to eat him for breakfast. "You can't have it both ways, Bruce," he says in a warm, chiding, avuncular tone. "You can't say you're against tax increases, but, Mario, you raise the income tax so that I don't have to raise the real-estate [property] tax, because they'l1 kick me out of office if I raise the real-estate tax." Isn't that asking people in Schenectady, Buffalo, and Utica to foot a bill that Bruce doesn't want to pay?
During the past eight years, the governor says, the state has increased funding to Long Island schools at twice the rate of inflation. "The net result: you people are blaming us for raising taxes. We were so generous to you, we wound up taking the heat. Isn't that true, Bruce? Haven't you on your program said the taxes are too high? Yes or no? Yes? Well, then why are you asking me for more money?"
IT is toward the end of the governor's speech in the Sunnyside Community Services Senior Center, and the room is rapt, silent, and hotter than ever. The fans overhead might as well be trying to stir aspic. Even the flies seem stunned by the heat. "Nobody knows better than I what tough shape our budget is in in Washington," Cuomo is saying. "I know all of that. But I know some other things, too. Despite all these problems, when you take this country and say no matter how expensive it is, we must do it -- we do it. Take," he says slowly, "the savings-and-loans crisis."
Cuomo waits for the buzz; the term "savings-and-loans" now evokes visceral responses in Americans. Here it has suddenly conjured a world of rich thieves, of insurance executives and investment bankers who are about to reach into the pocket of each citizen and extract several thousand dollars. One hazards the guess that Cuomo's mention of the debacle is related to the one thing all Americans know about insurance executives and investment bankers: they are Republicans.
"It's important," he says. "Not just because people said they stole it, though they did. But because it's an example of a commitment we need to honor." The commitment in this case is to the S&L depositors, many of whom will lose a lot of money if Uncle Sam does not step in. "They" -- the savings-and-loan operators -- "said they needed freedom to operate. So we gave them their freedom. We let them do their own thing -- and they stole you blind! The hit: five hundred billion to a trillion dollars."
It is difficult to describe the impact that Cuomo's voice has without sounding like a campaign commercial. He speaks simply, in short, clear sentences that roll quickly into one another, like surf. His voice is both deep and sharp, the words etched against the humid air, imbuing his speech with the passion of a defense lawyer arguing for a doomed client. Playing against his street-kid presence, he talks about intellectual issues; playing against his bullish demeanor, he talks about love. He works hard to avoid being above his audience, looking down. He speaks in the terms most people use when they think about choices: right and wrong. It is wrong, he says, to let social problems stew in their own juice. And it is right for people to demand more action from their government.
Given the country's commitment to the savings-and-loan bailout, Cuomo says, "it's a disgrace to say we can't afford national health insurance! It's a disgrace, it's an abomination, to say we can't help the homeless! But you" -- he points to the perspiring audience -- "you can do it if you try! Keep demanding it! Keep shouting for it! You're absolutely right!"
The crowd roars. Cuomo is here exercising what a one-time adversary, the former New York City mayor Edward I. Koch, calls his "cheerleader quotient." Koch was hardly being derisory. Not the least of a politician's duties is assuring the public that somebody is at the wheel. Cuomo being what Koch calls "the eight-hundred-pound gorilla" of New York politics, he is in an unmatched position to shape the agenda of political discourse. His strength is magnified by his ability to communicate, which is of Reaganesque dimensions. He has again and again used what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit to manifest concern for the disenfranchised. ("He's the best the system produces," says Douglas White, a former state human-rights commissioner. "I mean that absolutely sincerely.") It is the common duty of all citizens to care for their weaker fellows, the governor argues, and the mechanism to accomplish that is called government. To dismiss the possibility of helping, he suggests, is a moral lapse -- an ignominy unworthy of Americans. Applied to national health insurance, this stance has clear appeal to this group of elderly people in Queens. When he leaves, the air is still quivering with applause.
The cheering demonstrates why some Democrats have long wished that Cuomo would seek a national stage. For the past ten years, these people believe, the White House has been in the hands of men who have pushed beyond the economist's natural skepticism of government into the realm of Dr. Feelgood. The nation is beset by any number of crises. Homelessness, education, health care, child poverty, environmental damage, decaying infrastructure, and the drying-up of investment capital caused by the deficit and the low savings rate are often on the short list. The present Republican leadership, it is argued, has bet that the nation can do little and emerge unscathed. We will float to prosperity without having to increase government services. No thought will be required, and not many taxes. To some Democrats, this is a fool's paradise. Someone will have to push the country to get its house in order. Someone will have to point out that other industrialized nations do not share our rates of addiction, illiteracy, and infant mortality, and that almost all these countries have vast government initiatives to address those problems. Why, they ask, can't this country have national health insurance?
Unfortunately, past social programs in the United States have sometimes been badly thought out, or even counterproductive; the tottering, murderous urban-renewal apartment projects are among their mausoleums. Clear goals were not set; programs were sneaked in through the back door, without public support; and, above all, the inexorable realities of the market were ignored. The legacy of such failures is the bored cynicism about government that has been a hallmark of the past decade. To many Americans, Uncle Sam is like one of those vending machines that dispense packets marked SURPRISE! for fifty cents: the only thing certain about the contents is that they are not worth fifty cents. Getting people with this view of government to support significant new services -- national health insurance, for example -- will require a leader with enormous powers of persuasion. But no amount of persuasion will be enough if, in the end, the reality does not match the rhetoric, and the expanded services are not worth the price.
Surrounded by legislators and officials from the community center, the governor walks down a corridor of institutional gray, stops for a photo session, and then steps outside, where TV cameras wait in battle mode, a mass of lights and wires and mikes and camera sights leaping out like a prehistoric beast to block Cuomo's path. While technology makes it possible for rock stars to sing into microphones the size of marbles, the microphones of television reporters keep getting bigger, in order that the station logo can be mounted on them and photographed for the news. In New York the press competition is fierce, so Cuomo has to speak into what is effectively a forest of tiny billboards.
If body language is any guide, this is not the governor's favorite situation. Bristling, he tucks his head into his shoulders and flicks his eyes from side to side, checking out the mass. With his alert sleekness and strong shoulders, one is suddenly reminded of a seal -- a quick rough, elegant beast. The trick here, as in every encounter with the media, is to use an unpromising situation to send a message.
Governor, are you going to send in state troops to New York City to stop crime? Governor, how are you going to pay for the health-care program you just signed? Governor, are the oil companies gouging consumers after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait?
Cuomo snatches the last question from the air. He looks the reporter directly in the eye; the reporter looks down at the pad on which he is taking notes. "It takes weeks for the more expensive oil to reach the pump," the governor says. "Why do they raise it immediately? Oh, they say, it's because the price depends on futures. Well, does the price ever drop in anticipation? No! These guys are out to get every last penny they can get!" Cuomo says that if the oil companies don't bring the price down, he'll call for price controls.
The reporters' heads nod in agreement; everybody hates Big Oil, and the governor's populist language will get a lot of airtime. Unfortunately, this very intelligent man is here spouting nonsense. The price of the "old" oil is rising in exactly the same way that in a suddenly hot housing market a home bought for $100,000 six months ago can sell for $125,000 today. It's the same building; it's just worth more. The oil companies are like the family that owns that house. One may not admire them, but the price is rising because of the free-market economics this country is based on, not because the oil companies came up with some gouging scheme. In addition, Cuomo is wrong about the price of gas. It does come down. With inflation accounted for, the price that prevailed at the pump was lower before the Iraqi invasion than it had been in 1949. (If the oil companies are in league to chisel consumers, they are inept at it.) Finally, most mainstream economists believe that the price controls of the past worsened the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, because they created shortages.
This, of course, is the downside of the bully pulpit. The prickly, charismatic presence that has just inspired the old people in the auditorium to think about government is now being used to promote ideas that have twice knocked the economy askew. But no one questions him. In fairness, a curbside press conference may not be the place to discuss economics. Sometimes, in fact, it's not the place to discuss anything at all. Even as the reporters scribble down Cuomo's assault on Big Oil, a red pickup truck swerves by to see what the knot of cameras is focusing on. Inside are three teenagers, grinning ear to ear as they practice the ancient adolescent rite of playing at top volume the sort of music designed to bring grimaces to grownup faces. Heads on the sidewalk swivel at the approach of the throbbing bass; jaws drop inside the truck as the three boys recognize Cuomo.
"Yo, Mario!" one of them screams, giving the governor a clenched-fist salute. "Run for President, man!"
LET me tell you about his confrontational skills," says Alan Chartock, the professor and talk-show host. "One show during the Mondale-Reagan campaign he was trying to convince me that Mondale would win. He was giving me every argument he could think of. I kept saying no, and he would try something else. Finally, he said, 'Do you really think that Ronald Reagan will be the next President of the United States?' 'Yes,' I said. He turned, smiled that fatherly smile, and said, 'Who cares what you think?"'
FIFTY reporters and camera operators drift aimlessly by a tableful of untouched coffee and muffins. They are milling about the Manhattan headquarters of Consolidated Edison, the city's biggest electric utility. Judging by the air of sleepy boredom, the press believes that it has been rousted out of bed this cool May morning for an event of epochal tedium. It is being asked to inform the public about a new pact among the city, the state, and Con Ed extending the current freeze on base electric rates.
Outside, a black Chevrolet pulls to the curb. A man in the back seat throws on a blazer. Stepping out, he is instantly surrounded by aides; they move ahead slowly, as if a phalanx. The man in the blazer shakes hands, laughs, speculates on the political implications of the Mets' current slide. He claps an arm over the shoulders of David Dinkins, Ed Koch's successor as mayor. As the two men laugh, Cuomo's eyes flick across the room in quick, millimeter-wide glances; seeing an unknown face, he gives it three, four, five stabs before giving up on its identity. The governor is at ease; a significant part of his job is to appear at ceremonial gatherings and to charm and exhort the attending media.
Around a corner is a makeshift assemblage of chairs and a dais with the seal of New York State. Various dignitaries speak, including Dinkins; dutiful notebooks are hauled out by the media people, including Gabe Pressman, the Human Trenchcoat, likely New York City's most famous television reporter. Cuomo is reserved for last. When he rises to speak, he puts on his glasses -- a sign, one imagines, of high purpose -- and stares through them at Pressman. "When you talk about things like rate agreements," the governor says, "can you think of anything less likely to get the attention of The New York Times and Gabe Pressman?" Other, more significant events -- Marla Maples's appearances come to the governor's mind -- always seem to eclipse this kind of news. "So, Gabe," he says, "if you can pull yourself away from all the terribly important things in your exotic programs to just say a line to the people in Jamaica that their rates will be stable, we'd appreciate it. But even if you don't, we've saved sixty million dollars."
The governor argues that the projected annual savings of $60 million is equivalent to a tax cut of the same magnitude. It is important, moreover, as a signal to those who seek to do business in the city that New York is trying to stabilize costs. The governor may be right, but he's losing his audience. Utility regulation is what journalists call MEGO, an acronym for "my eyes glaze over," which is supposedly the reader's reaction to this kind of story. It is an example of what Cuomo likes to call the prose of governance, the slogwork of programs and bond issues and fiscal calculations, as opposed to the poetry, which occurs when political leaders use their position to lift people's hearts. Prose is the deficit; poetry is the flag. Today the governor is trying, as he often does, to raise prose to the level of poetry.
"I'll take all the credit I can," he says. "Especially this year. That's the way the business is. But the truth is, the governor didn't do it. Everybody did -- the legislature, the utilities, the advocacy groups. They could tie it up if they wanted. Nobody would care. The legislation of escrow accounts" -- Cuomo makes a face of feigned boredom, drawing a chuckle -- "Who knows? Who cares? Who has any idea what escrow is? But these are important services to people that government doesn't get credit for. It's too bad, when government needs a shot in the arm."
Government needs a shot in the arm. Cuomo contends that Americans are not conscious of the network of government that makes their lives easier, and that if they were, their beliefs about government -- perhaps even their attitude toward taxes -- might change. Government delivers legions of services, from garbage removal to air-traffic control, that are as necessary as the elevator in an apartment dweller's building, and as seldom thought about. They make the papers, the governor notes, only when something goes wrong. When things go right, they are invisible. They are boring. They are MEGO. But in truth, Cuomo argues, this governmental prose is a sturdy, elegant thing, and should be celebrated. That is why, he says, he is here this morning. He turns the podium over to a man from Consolidated Edison. "Okay," he says, "I've done everything I can to get your names in the papers -- especially Gabe Pressman."
Twenty minutes later Cuomo drifts to his car. In his wake reporters talk idly about the story. The rate agreement will get little airtime, and none from Gabe Pressman. Few of the reporters are sure whether the pact is a great success or a rationalization of the inevitable or a payoff to some interest group. Consumers will save $60 million, but should they save $80 million? Or will this agreement force Con Ed to postpone needed investment? Are voters getting their money's worth? No one knows. The governor's car pulls up outside. Inside, the muffins remain untouched, afloat on a sea of MEGO.
DEMOCRACIES are based on the notion of citizens' evaluating their leaders' performance. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to tell just what those leaders have done. Few people would hold Cuomo responsible for, say, the recession afflicting the Northeast, or for failing to eliminate the problems grouped under the rubric of "the underclass." To what extent are the sad conditions in New York City emergency rooms the fault of Mario Cuomo? To absolve him completely is to challenge his own belief that government can make a difference. How is the voter to judge the governor's performance, or, for that matter, the performance of any elected leader?
"The question is very difficult to answer," says Harry Hatry, of the Urban Institute. "Still, one must try." New York is a high-tax state run by a strong advocate for government services. Logically, one might try to judge the governor's performance by examining whether the services provided correspond to the level of taxation. The simple amount of money spent tells you little, Hatry points out. "In the case of public assistance," he says, "you've got the problem that high payments may be because you're doing the job." Is that the situation in Mario Cuomo's New York?
Cuomo has staked out a distinctive intellectual position on the taking of human life, vetoing a state death penalty eight times and upholding New Yorkers' relatively unrestricted access to abortion. He rammed tough ethics rules down the throat of a legislature that wanted no part of them. And, risking MEGO, he has conducted innovative experiments in utility regulation, including the shutdown, over the protests of a furious federal government, of a completed but never licensed nuclear-power plant on Long Island. But these actions, important as they are, have relatively little immediate impact on the daily business of the state -- providing services.
To a large extent the task of New York, or any other state, is to provide services. It is what the budget is spent on; it is what the bureaucracy is paid for; it is what Cuomo is elected to do. Evaluating the governor's performance necessarily involves examining how well his government delivers on its promises. The obvious place to begin is Medicaid, the single biggest state program directly under Cuomo's control. "Whenever money is being spent," says Frank Mauro, of the Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York. "it's important to ask what it's being spent on."
Created in 1965 as a kind of afterthought to Medicare, the national health scheme for the elderly, Medicaid provides basic medical coverage to certain types of poor people. The chief recipients are those enrolled in two other federal programs: Aid to Families with Dependent Children (mothers and children), and Supplemental Security Income (the blind, the disabled, and the aged poor). Various special efforts to aid small children, foster children, and -- a recent addition -- pregnant women are included as well. States are also free to add in the "medically needy," within certain limits. A medically needy person might be a single man who makes a lower-middle-class living but needs brain surgery that will bankrupt him. Or the term might refer to a family of three that earns a few hundred dollars more than its AFDC income level, which in New York State is $8,500. Whatever groups the state chooses to cover are provided with a package of basic Medicaid services, such as physician and hospital care. The state may also dispense up to thirty-two optional services, ranging from paying for prescription drugs, which most states do, to hiring Christian Science nurses, which only five states cover. Payments are split between Washington and the state according to a complex formula based on the state's per capita income.
The result of this free-form choice, as one might imagine, is a patchwork of wildly diverse programs that have grown since their founding into a $60 billion administrative nightmare that few experts seem willing to defend. Up to a third of the money is spent on elderly people who cannot afford huge bills for long stays in nursing homes and hospitals. Because Medicare covers little of these costs, Medicaid has become the chief safety net for the old. As lifetimes lengthen, the proportion of elderly people rises, and more and more people end up in that safety net. Medicaid was not intended to become the de facto insurance vehicle for long-term elderly care; nonetheless, it has done exactly that. Nobody wants to pay for it, but nobody relishes the prospect of dooming the nation's elderly to penury either. As a consequence, Medicaid grows at double-digit speed, and the states find themselves cutting other programs to make room.
Given that Medicaid was established while Rockefeller was New York's governor, it is unsurprising that the state has historically been a generous provider of Medicaid benefits. Indeed, New York's program was designed from the first to grab as much federal money as possible to pay for initiatives Rockefeller had already taken. According to Stephen Long, a health economist at the Rand Corporation, the state was spending almost twice as much per AFDC recipient as the rest of the nation in 1975. During Cuomo's tenure the cost of Medicaid has increased by two thirds, even though the number of people in the program is only slightly larger. Today the rate of increase has moderated somewhat, but in 1989, New York Medicaid payments still cost $568 for every man, woman, and child in the state. By almost any measure this is an amazing sum. It is higher than that in any other state, and more than two and a half times the national average. The next state on the list, Massachusetts, spent only $405 per capita. At $10.2 billion, New York's Medicaid payment is higher than those of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin together, which have more than twice the population.
Establishing why Medicaid in New York costs so much is not easy. The New York State comptroller, Edward V. Regan, a Republican, reported last year that the state "offers more services, has less limitations on the services offered and has authorized more categories of individuals to be eligible for such services" than other states. New York provides twenty-eight of the thirty-two optional services, and gives them to all eligible participants. Delaware, by contrast, doles out only seventeen of the options, and won't give even those to the "medically needy." But California's Medi-Cal program pays for twenty-seven options and serves one million more people than New York does, while costing $4.7 billion less to operate. Such numbers, the comptroller said, indicate "the potential for a significant reduction in New York's Medicaid costs" -- a bureaucratic way of saying that the program is hugely wasteful.
"The comptroller is so wrong on this," Cuomo says. "I think frankly he said his piece so often he's embarrassed to admit now that he's been caught." In general, Cuomo says, such per capita cost comparisons are "ridiculous." He says, "There is no comparison because the state gives different services in California. A lot of things that we do that are in the Medicaid budget, the state of California does not include in its budget; it gets delivered by local governments." In New York, for example, mentally ill people in community institutions are covered by Medicaid, at considerable expense. In California many of these patients are paid for by the counties. "So how can you compare us?" the governor asks. "I mean, you can't. There is no comparison. You would have to take like services. When you take like services, we do very well."
Most Medicaid experts agree with the governor that comparing Medicaid systems across states is difficult. But it is far from clear that taking like services shows his government in the best light. The interstate variation in costs, says Jo-Ann Costantino, the Medicaid director for New York, mostly comes from having made different choices about long-term treatment for the elderly and the disabled. As a consequence, services for these groups are hard to compare fairly. But one can examine the benefits for recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, because children and young mothers have relatively uncomplicated needs, and the services offered them are therefore similar. Most of these health needs have to do with things like children's ear infections, school health certificates, and pregnancy monitoring; there is no a priori reason why these should cost more in Binghamton, New York, than in Birmingham, Alabama. According to data from the Health Care Financing Administration, which is the division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services responsible for tracking health costs, New York in 1989 spent $1,287 per recipient on care for the women and children in AFDC, the third highest amount in the nation. (Highest was Alaska, where labor costs are unusual; next was Minnesota, which runs a huge child-care program.) If New Yorkers paid the national average of $902, Medicaid bills would go down by $550 million -- more than a third of the state's 1990 tax increase, taken from one chunk of one program. What are New Yorkers getting for the money?
One possibility is better service. A major initiative of Cuomo's, as it happens, has been the "Decade of the Child," announced in 1988, which seeks to improve the lot of families with small children. "We must make a commitment to our children, in every conceivable way," he said then. "Not just this year, not just next year: we must make the next ten years the Decade of the Child!" But if the Decade of the Child is why the price of Medicaid is so high, statistics do not reflect this. New York's infant-mortality rate is thirty-ninth in the nation, and its percentage of low-birth-weight babies has risen by a tenth since 1985. The Decade of the Child, Ed Koch says sardonically, "is a wonderful phrase -- but where is the child? Which child?" Informed of the high per capita cost of Medicaid for poor mothers and children, Koch, who believes Cuomo's reputation is at variance with his achievement, raised his eyebrows and said, "Oh, my."
Another possible explanation is that everything costs more in New York, especially New York City, and that medical care is no exception. This theory -- the "city-as-sinkhole" theory -- is not well substantiated. In general, according to Robert W. Rafuse, Jr., of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, the extra cost of government in New York is not attributable to higher than average input costs. His remarks are backed by Hal Hovey, the director of State Policy Research, a private research group in Alexandria, Virginia, which tracks state behavior. All systematic comparisons, Hovey says, have shown that New York has but slightly higher prices than the rest of the nation. "If you want a two-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow for a family of three, you would be well advised to locate in certain portions of New York City," he says. Costs are higher for the minority of "people who go to cocktail parties," he concedes. "But people who empty bedpans, which is what drives up Medicaid costs, can easily live in New York City." The major cost-of-living difference, he says, is state and local taxes. "Blaming the price of government on the need to compensate for costs driven by taxes -- can you see the circularity in that?"
An explanation advanced by state officials is the distribution of health-care providers. A routine ea~ infection can be treated by a family doctor or by an emergency room. The doctor and the hospital are not reimbursed equally, however. According to Costantino, the doctor would typically be paid eleven dollars to treat a child's ear infection, while the hospital would receive more than seventy dollars -- seven times as much. Unsurprisingly, relatively few doctors accept Medicaid patients -- with dire implications for the budget.
New York's departments of health and social services have consistently pushed to change the balance between doctors and hospitals by paying doctors more. They have also put through several widely praised reforms to limit hospital charges. Ultimately, however, structural change can come about only by hurting the hospitals, which depend on Medicaid to fill their beds. (New York has almost as many hospital beds as California; without Medicaid, many hospitals would collapse.) Hospitals being universally described as one of the strongest lobbies in the state, such change could occur only if Cuomo made a major effort to focus public attention on health-care costs. This year his office worked hard for reforms. But diligent inquiry among observers outside the health-care system failed to turn up anyone willing to credit Cuomo with fighting his utmost to restructure the system properly -- for instance, by taking the necessary steps to ensure that the poor would get much more of their health care from individual doctors than from emergency rooms. Whether such a passive stance is appropriate for a program of Medicaid's importance is a question for debate.
"I'm a liberal Democrat," says a former high city official and an ostensible Cuomo supporter, "and I have nothing but bad words to say for him. I don't care how many beautiful words you speak, to pay so little attention to how your government works is a kind of betrayal of the ethic of public service. The state government is mind-bogglingly screwed up, and everybody knows it. Eventually people are going to find out and they'll bring in Republicans, who instead of making it better will insist on making it smaller, whether or not the programs need to be cut -- which is even more pernicious."
Historically, liberal social programs have often been jerry-built on weak foundations, leading to later discontent and large-scale retrofitting. Medicaid is a prime example. If, as the governor has said, the United States, like other industrialized nations, should have a national health scheme, it should be thought through from the beginning. Otherwise the price of good intentions may escalate unacceptably, as has happened in the past. All workable national-health-insurance schemes depend on controlling access to nonessential services. Our present system has surgeons removing moles on one floor while gunshot victims wait for emergency attention on another. Almost certainly a humane national health insurance would delay vision checkups, nose jobs, and perhaps some major surgery of uncertain effect in order to direct care to the most needy. The principle of service on demand would vanish. Cuomo advocates national health insurance; he has shown no relish for explaining to audiences that they will have to give up something to get it.
In New York's political circles the governor is often described as being reluctant to pick the fights necessary to ram through change. Faced with a state Republican Party that cannot field an effective gubernatorial candidate, Cuomo has been able to keep taxes high enough to avoid being tough on his own supporters. In the nation beyond New York, however, the Republican Party is far from dormant, and sweeping problems of governance under a rug of high taxes is not good politics.
To fend off a tax revolt while finding the resources to make imperative social investments, a post-Cold War President will have to spend heaps of political capital to achieve his -- or her -- goals. That President will have to make government work and convince the voters of the need to pay for it. Cuomo has shown that he can accomplish the second task; that's what the poets of politics do. But he has yet to realize the promise of his poetry in the hard prose of government, at least in New York State. To be sure, that is no easy task. But politicians are judged by the possibilities they evoke, and it is Cuomo's blessing and curse to make people expect of him what his father demanded -- As in everything.
OKAY, one more question," the governor tells Bruce, the radio host. The host asks it. Cuomo rolls his eyes; a press aide stops holding his breath.
"I have no plans to run for President," he says, "and no plans to make plans. I never expected to get to be governor.... This is more than I ever dreamed, and I don't have any aspirations that go beyond it."
Bruce starts to argue that Cuomo must have presidential intentions, because he speaks out on national issues. Cuomo rolls his eyes again. Even if he has made up his mind to run, one is stretched to imagine the circumstances under which he would declare before 1991, or even 1992. The Republicans in the state senate are unlikely to ease up on next spring's budget fight if they can help torpedo a presidential bid. In any case, a politician who preaches the supreme importance of circumstances, as Cuomo has, would not likely box himself into a race two years away. When Cuomo lost elections in the past, he has said, it was because he had nothing to run on. If there is a recession in 1992, and if voters are still angry about the savings-and-loan crisis, and if people have rethought their support for U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf -- then the governor may consider his options.
As it is now, he talks about national problems "because there is an umbilical connection between the state and the federal government in Washington," he tells Bruce. "It's like a mother and child are connected. We can't live without them. Everything they do affects us. They raised our Social Security taxes; they closed down defense contracts for Grumman -- we're all in trouble. We need them to save the lighthouse [near Bruce's home, on Long Island], to save the beaches there because of the erosion problem." It's simple, he says. Speaking out "is part of what you pay me for, Bruce. The way you call on me to reduce taxes and give you more money at the same time -- that doesn't mean you want to be governor, does it?"
ELEVEN politicians sit behind a table in the auditorium of the National Press Club. Facing them is an audience of reporters with enough electronic equipment to have made a fair contribution to the trade deficit. The men represent the Coalition Against Double Taxation, which has called a press conference to promote the idea that the federal government should not, as it has proposed, eliminate the deductibility of state and local taxes. The coalition is composed overwhelmingly of state and local officials, who feel that ending the deduction would hurt their ability to raise money. To ensure a press turnout, they have promised a star: Mario Cuomo.
As ever, Cuomo is the last to speak. Under Reagan and Bush, he says, the federal government cut taxes without cutting expenditures. The result? They're in a hole, he says. They're desperate to raise money. They'll do it by any means they can, other than by raising the federal income-tax rates for the rich. "They raised thirteen different taxes," he says. "While saying 'Read my lips,' they were taxing us over and over!" These taxes -- Cuomo is in full swing now, leaning over the lectern as if to grab his audience by their lapels -- have one thing in common. They're all regressive. "They will deny you police, roads, and bridges," he says. "Anything to avoid raising taxes on the wealthy! They conveniently forgot about states' rights [with this proposal]. We're saving, don't come to us for money and deny us services! Go to the people whose taxes you cut from seventy to twenty percent!"
As he speaks, Cuomo keeps veering toward an underlying subject -- New Federalism. Early in the past decade the Republican Administration and Congress removed many constraints on how states run federal programs. They also provided less money, on the theory that the states would be more efficient. Federal grants to state and local governments fell 11.2 percent in the 1980s -- enough money, the New York budget office has calculated, to account entirely for the state's budget shortfall this year. As it was, most states had to raise taxes. In theory, that might make little difference to the economy. But because states are afraid to lose businesses, they didn't make up all the difference by raising taxes. They also cut services. This makes fine economic sense, but it is hard to justify if one believes that the purpose of health-care programs is to provide health care, or that the purpose of schools is to teach. America's public sector, Cuomo argues, was crippled. Without federal leadership, the system is hard-pressed to produce the educated, healthy work force business needs. The solution, he says, is simple: federal leadership. That will take a federal tax hike.
A tax hike! Cuomo mimes the shocked reaction of a Republican loyalist. "He said, 'Don't do it! It'll take wealth out of the economy,'" the governor confides. "This is the same guy who told us that cutting taxes would raise government income. Last time, you were two trillion dollars off; why should I listen to you?" The reporters laugh -- the laugh that, to cite a saying attributed to Molière, allows the spikes of reason to penetrate the brain. One can almost see light bulbs flashing; Cuomo is using his oratory and charm to feed public debate on an important issue. It is the kind of dexterous performance that keeps even his most ardent detractors among New York Democrats secretly hoping that he'll decide the time is right to go on the national stage, and that he'll do good things there.
Afterward the crowd streams out, filling up all the elevators. The governor follows more slowly, trailed by questioners. Then he, too, gets into an elevator. Reporters pack in with him. They ride down in uneasy silence. At each floor the doors open, and muttered curses are heard. People who have been waiting through several elevators full of reporters cannot believe they have to wait longer. Then they see Cuomo and their mouths snap shut. Some of the reporters begin to snicker. Cuomo, as is his wont, gives no clue to what he is thinking. He might be alone. Finally someone breaks the silence.
"Governor," a small voice says, "are you running for President?"
Copyright © 1990 by Charles C. Mann. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1990; The Prose (and Poetry) of Mario M. Cuomo; Volume 266, No. 6; pages 90 - 108.