The opening night of the Democrats’ virtual convention was the beginning of a coronation for Joe Biden, but it was also a victory march for Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor and a supposed hero of the coronavirus pandemic. “For all the pain and all the tears, our way worked,” Cuomo declared in his five-minute speech. “And it was beautiful.”
“Beautiful” is an odd way to describe a virus that has killed more than 25,000 New Yorkers, or about 15 percent of the total number of Americans who have died from COVID-19. But Cuomo has long been a curious leader for Democrats to hold up as an emblem of successful leadership during the pandemic: He has somehow presided over the worst and deadliest coronavirus outbreak in the country while eluding the widespread criticism that has surrounded both President Donald Trump and New York City’s Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio.
In contrast to other prominent state and local leaders, Cuomo’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak was slow and mistake-filled. He initially balked at issuing stay-at-home orders while cases mounted and then ordered sick elderly patients out of hospitals and back to nursing homes, where the virus spread like wildfire. But to the unending frustration of Republicans, the governor’s buoyant image has been a study in the power of public communication to overshadow policy failures: Cuomo’s detailed, candid, and often weirdly funny daily briefings became appointment television for New Yorkers stuck in their homes and for a national cable audience transfixed by a leader who, unlike Trump, was tackling the crisis head-on.
In a nod to those briefings, Cuomo appeared tonight in a pretaped recording flanked by a pair of his signature PowerPoint screens, as he delivered a speech that was a mix of Biden endorsement and New York braggadocio. “We climbed the impossible mountain, and right now we are on the other side,” he said.
To Cuomo’s credit, he appears to have handled New York’s emergence from the depths of the spring better than he handled the state’s descent. New York does vastly more testing than any other state in the country; it reopened cautiously and in stages, and the virus has not resurged as it has elsewhere. To prevent a second wave, Cuomo and other northeastern governors have implemented a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers from states where the virus is spreading uncontrolled. Deaths have slowed to a trickle, and today Cuomo announced that New York’s infection rate had remained below 1 percent for a 10th consecutive day.
It is that more recent record that Democrats want to highlight, and that Cuomo has delighted in bragging about. “As they proved their way failed, we proved that our way succeeded,” he said in a reference both to Trump and to Republican-led states that reopened too quickly. Cuomo made an affirmative case for masking—“because we are smart, and because I care about you and because you care about me”—and for social distancing, “because staying away shows how close we actually are.”
Yet in another odd turn, he described the virus as “a metaphor” for a body politic that had been weakened by division. Viruses have always been handy metaphors, but this one has literally killed more than 170,000 Americans.
Cuomo does have a good story to tell about New York’s stabilization and recovery—health-wise, if not yet economically—over the past few months. But can a finally flattened curve really count as a success when the initial spike was so severe, so deadly, and so preventable? The governor would say yes: He’s routinely deflected questions about what he could have done differently and skirted blame for New York’s nursing-home tragedy.
Biden and the Democratic Party, too, have chosen to look only at Cuomo’s triumphs rather than his failures. Between the early surge in the Northeast and the summer wave everywhere else, there’s nary an American leader they could summon who doesn’t have a checkered record on COVID-19. Democrats were looking for pandemic heroes to feature tonight—doctors, nurses, businessmen and -women, and even political leaders. In the legend of Andrew Cuomo, however, they settled for something of a myth.