The tributes to Mario Cuomo remember him as a three-term governor of New York and the voice of late-20th-century Democratic liberalism, a politician whose talents in campaign poetry probably exceeded his governing prose. But as much as any political figure in the last generation, Cuomo's legacy is about what might have been.
He initially earned the nickname "Hamlet on the Hudson" for his agonizing indecision over whether to run for president, first in 1988 and then more dramatically in 1992. Cuomo came so close to entering the latter race that, on the day of the December 1991 filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary, he had two chartered planes (one for his press corps) waiting on the tarmac in Albany, according to a contemporaneous New York Times account. In case he was cutting it too close, he had also dispatched an aide to Concord with a copy of signed papers to file on his behalf. But when Cuomo emerged to reporters awaiting his decision at the state capitol, he told them he was not running. He cited the need to resolve a budget impasse with Republicans, but as Ken Auletta recalled on Thursday night for The New Yorker, the real reason may have had more to do with his hatred for travel and "his distaste for the grovelling, the fundraising, the selling, the motels" that are the stuff of presidential campaigns.
Would Cuomo have won? He certainly wasn't a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, but he likely would have entered the race as the early frontrunner. As Steve Kornacki points out, the final national poll taken before Cuomo opted out showed him with support from 29 percent of Democratic voters and a clear lead over a field of seven. His absence opened up the race and hastened Bill Clinton's rise. Just as it's impossible to say if Cuomo would have defeated Clinton, who knows if Cuomo's old-school liberalism—as opposed to Clinton's more centrist New Democrat message—would have toppled President George H.W. Bush? But even if he hadn't won, Cuomo could have deprived one Clinton (and possibly two) of the presidency.