Until Andrew Cuomo actually uttered the words “step aside” shortly after noon today, the prospect that he might resign seemed hard to fathom. To be sure, vanishingly few people in New York politics thought the governor would serve out his term—not with 11 women accusing him of sexual harassment or worse, not with the Democratic majority in the state Assembly pursuing an impeachment case against him, not with virtually the entire Democratic Party locally and nationally demanding his ouster.
But the last Democrat to believe in Andrew Cuomo’s invincibility was Andrew Cuomo, and he had been rearing for a fight. He would be Ralph Northam, not Al Franken, and certainly not Eliot Spitzer. Franken, the comedian turned Minnesota senator, had reluctantly stepped down under pressure from his Democratic colleagues in early 2018 after several women accused him of sexual misconduct. By the following year, some of those fellow senators were expressing remorse for pushing Franken out so suddenly. Closer to home, Spitzer, Cuomo’s onetime rival in New York Democratic politics, lasted only two days after The New York Times reported in 2008 that the then-governor was under federal investigation for hiring prostitutes.
Northam, however, had lit for Cuomo a path out of scandal. After a photo surfaced that appeared to be him wearing blackface in a 1984 yearbook, the Virginia governor defied similarly universal calls from Democratic leaders to resign. Northam will finish his term this year not as a party pariah but as a Democrat in good standing. Politically, he was aided by Virginia’s single-term limit and the fact that two women soon accused his would-be successor, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, of sexual assault.
But in many ways, Cuomo had far more advantages than Northam. The son of a popular three-term governor, he had easily won reelection twice in his own right, dispatching challengers on the left and right in convincing fashion. Cuomo was the undisputed most powerful politician in New York, fully embraced (if never really loved) by the party establishment, close to both President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Progressives despised him, but he had mastered the basics of politics—wielding power, effecting change, outflanking opponents, and maintaining public support—like few others in recent memory. Over the past year and a half, Cuomo won rave reviews (far more than he actually deserved) and, somehow, even an Emmy award for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
So Cuomo had good reason to think that he could simply muscle through, that the forces of political gravity—weakened by the public’s ever-shortened attention span and years of elected officials evading accountability—were not strong enough to bring him down. He had already survived the first wave of pressure earlier this year, when Democrats in New York and elsewhere initially called for his resignation. Cuomo offered little hint that he was on the verge of giving up, even after he started speaking this afternoon. He had sent out his attorney Rita Glavin to defend him and spend 45 minutes criticizing the detailed and damaging investigative report of state Attorney General Letitia James—hardly the usual tactic of an executive about to quit. When Cuomo took the microphone, he was more contrite and apologetic than he has recently been, perhaps signaling a final bid to cling to enough support among Democrats in the legislature to stave off impeachment. But then he found the script of a politician who knows he can hold out no longer. Cuomo described the distraction a protracted fight would cause, how it would cost millions and waste time and attention that needed to be devoted to stopping the spread of the Delta variant across the state. “It will brutalize people,” Cuomo said of a possible impeachment, a word he didn’t use. “Wasting energy on distractions is the last thing that state government should be doing, and I cannot be the cause of that,” he continued. “I would never want to be unhelpful in any way, and I think that, given the circumstances, the best way I can help now is if I step aside and let government get back to governing.”
Besides Northam, Cuomo’s other role model was surely one of his political mentors, former President Bill Clinton, who survived an impeachment over a sex-and-perjury scandal and left office with broad public approval. But the two parties have cleaved even further apart on allegations of sexual impropriety, just as they have on so many other issues in the past two decades. Clinton, as Cuomo undoubtedly well knows, likely would not have served out his term today. Although Republicans were the party that prioritized character and sexual morality, Democratic voters today hold their leaders to a higher standard. The GOP never came close to bailing on Donald Trump despite the seemingly constant allegations of assault, misconduct, and plain old corruption leveled against him. Few Republicans have called for the resignation of a much less powerful figure, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, over reports that he is under investigation for having sex with an underage girl. (Gaetz has denied wrongdoing.) That dynamic is borne out empirically: In a recent study, Democratic voters were more likely than Republicans to believe claims of sexual harassment against a politician in their own party, and to believe that the politician would abuse their office in other ways.
The always plotting Cuomo might not be finished yet; he concluded his speech today with a long recitation of his accomplishments as governor. There are already murmurs that he could try for a comeback by running again in 2022 and asking voters, as opposed to state legislators, to render a final verdict. For the moment, though, Cuomo discovered that a 35-year-old photo in a yearbook is not the same as 11 women credibly accusing you of harming them. At least in the Democratic Party, accountability still exists, and once the entire party abandoned him, even a powerful three-term governor had only one option left.