How Mario Cuomo Won the Long Game

Regarded as a heroic failure in his time, his ideas presaged today's Democratic message. But the white working-class he came from has left his party in droves.

Mario Cuomo with Bill Clinton in 1994 (Doug Mills/AP)

In the prime of his political career, Mario Cuomo was perceived even by his supporters (or especially by his supporters!) as a heroic failure. This last, eloquent champion of New Deal liberalism won three elections to govern the New Deal’s home state at the very moment that the nation seemed to have executed a decisive turn to the political right. Every cause he articulated—more social spending, higher taxes on the wealthy, the nuclear freeze, abortion rights, death-penalty abolition—suffered reverse after reverse. The president he reviled in his famous speech to the 1984 Democratic National Convention won reelection with almost 59 percent of the vote, an accomplishment no subsequent candidate for president has come near to equaling. In the end, or the apparent end, his own party repudiated Cuomo’s liberalism, turning instead to the so-called New Democrat Bill Clinton and his program of budget balancing, welfare reform, and re-invented government.

But in politics there is no “end.” What was bold and new in 1992 looks battered and antique in 2015. There is nothing more out of date these days than a New Democrat. From 2009 to 2011, a Democratic president and Congress enacted the huge domestic-spending program advocated by Cuomo and rejected by Clinton. Mario Cuomo couldn’t prevent the top income-tax rate being cut to 28 percent in Reagan’s second term, but it has incrementally increased past 40 percent.* The politician who most excites Democrats today, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, is best known for her attacks on the financial deregulation so enthusiastically promoted by Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department.

Mario Cuomo would recognize the message and endorse the actions. Watch that famous 1984 speech, beginning to end:

Its relentless emphasis on poverty, homelessness, hunger, and despair sounded bizarrely discordant in prosperous 1984, a year of 7.3 percent economic growth. Almost 2.4 million Americans found work in the six months before the Democrats’ July convention.

In 2015, however, Cuomo’s words resonate in a way they did not when delivered. “There's another city; there's another part to the shining 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. In this part of the city there are more poor than ever, more families in trouble, more and more people who need help but can't find it.” All of this applies much more literally today than when it was said. In 1984, “most” young people could and did afford a mortgage: Home ownership among those ages 25 to 44 reached its historic peak of 61 percent in the early 1980s. Even before the financial crisis, that rate had tumbled below 57 percent, and the best experts in the field estimate the rate even lower today.

It took the trauma of the Great Depression to bring New Deal liberalism to power. The aftershock of the Great Recession has revived that style of liberalism, at least within Cuomo’s party. The wife of Cuomo’s political nemesis leads the Democratic presidential field today, but the Hillary Clinton of the 2016 cycle sounds more like Mario than like Bill: “We Democrats are for raising the minimum wage, for equal pay for equal work, for making college and technical training affordable, for growing the economy to benefit everyone. And our opponents are not.”

Yet there is one important way in which Mario Cuomo liberalism has gone out of style, never to return. Cuomo never forgot his origins in the immigrant working class that idolized Franklin Roosevelt and elected John F. Kennedy. Cuomo memorably compared Walter Mondale to polenta, the bland, mushy cornmeal staple of the Italian poor. Cuomo’s most famous speech ended with this haunting evocation of his deceased father: "I watched a small man with thick calluses on both his hands work 15 and 16 hours a day. I saw him once literally bleed from the bottoms of his feet, a man who came here uneducated, alone, unable to speak the language, who taught me all I needed to know about faith and hard work by the simple eloquence of his example."

Yet the huge majority of Italian-American voters, like the huge majority of Irish Americans, Polish Americans, and all the other white ethnic groups who once rallied to Roosevelt and Kennedy have now deserted Roosevelt’s and Kennedy’s party—not to return unless they have earned a college degree and gained comfortable professional work. In 2014, non-college whites voted 30 points more Republican than Democratic, a gap unlikely to have been exceeded even among private-jet owners and polo players. Even before Barack Obama, the white working class from which Cuomo hailed had emerged as the most Republican major demographic grouping in the nation—and that identity has only intensified since 2009. Philip Bump demonstrates how this played out in the midterm elections:

How Americans Voted in 2014
The Washington Post

The five Democratic presidential candidates for president since 1984 accumulated a total of 10 academic diplomas, including three from Harvard and two from Yale. The most visible and successful Italian-American politician under 70 is … Rick Santorum. The days when a white male graduate of St. John’s College in Queens could feel at home among national Democrats have receded into the past. Even as Cuomo’s party has returned to Cuomo’s ideals and Cuomo’s rhetoric, it has left behind Cuomo’s people.

* This post originally stated that the tax rate had increased past 45 percent. We regret the error.