Cuomo articulates a national message


Albany, N.Y.-- Playing tour guide, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo ducks through an unmarked door in his Capitol study into an executive chamber that must be the grandest in America.

Lined with acres of sumptuous Philippine mahogaony and gilded leather, the ceremonial office is a breathtaking throwback to a time when New York truly was the Empire State.

"Who," Mr. Cuomo asks teasingly amid the splendor, "would want to be anything but governor?"

Try Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, for starters. Also, Charles Evans Hughes, Alfred E. Smith, Thomas E. Dewey, W. Averell Harriman and Nelson A. Rockefeller. Each found the Statehouse in Albany too confining for his ambitions. And Mr. Cuomo, despite carefully crafted protests to the contrary, seems no different from his predecessors.

This fall, the 58-year-old New Yorker is seeking a third term as governor, against minimal opposition. It's been reported that as many as 19 potential Republican candidates turned down the chance to run against him before Pierre A. Rinfret, an unknown who wasn't even a registered Republican at the time, took the GOP nomination. Mr. Cuomo's popularity has slumped a bit, along with his state's economy. Still, he's a cinch to win in November; the only question is by how much.

As Mr. Cuomo presents his case for re-election, he is also articulating the most fully developed national message of any potential 1992 Democratic presidential nominee. His themes are those of an outsider, which just happens to be the kind of candidate some strategists think the Democrats need to beat George Bush.

Mr. Cuomo seldom misses an opportunity to play on public discontent with Washington. He blames it for problems ranging from crime and drug abuse to higher taxes and racial division.

More federal spending is needed, he says, for early childhood education, for AIDS, housing, roads, research and development and job training. For proof that the federal government can come up with the funds, he cites the massive savings and loan bailout, projected to cost $500 billion or more. "How the hell can you [Washington] do it and tell us there is no money for children? There is no money for [fighting] drugs? There is no money for education?" he thunders to supporters.

From his perch in the economically shaky Northeast, he sees recession staring the country in the face, and he faults national leaders for failing to head it off. That includes Democrats, who must agree to make cuts in entitlement programs. "We know that it is not the wallet Washington lacks; it is the will," the governor said in a recent speech, turning around a line from President Bush's inaugural address.

Last year, with Mr. Bush at record approval ratings in the polls, Mr. Cuomo became the first prominent Democrat to bash the president (though he has only high praise for Mr. Bush's handling of the Persian Gulf situation).

He would like nothing more, it seems, than to put Mr. Bush back in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, whose reputation has shrunk considerably since he left office. Few Republicans invoke the Reagan name any more, but Mr. Cuomo is doing his best to keep it alive. The New Yorker presents himself as an antidote to Reagan-Bush; he's the 1990s candidate who fought the excesses of the 1980s.

"The last 10 years are relevant. The last 10 years are one piece," he said in an interview. "I'm getting at values. I'm getting at our mistake, Democrats, our failure of leadership."

One top Cuomo aide bills a potential Cuomo vs. Bush matchup as "compassion versus greed." Mr. Cuomo himself ridicules Republicans' faith in free markets and their disdain for government. Over the past decade, he says, their policies have fragmented the nation, widened the gap between rich and poor and led to a dangerous dependence on foreigners to finance the massive federal debt. While Europe is moving toward economic union in 1992, the United States "is growing weaker," he says.

Class warfare rhetoric is on the upsurge this election year, and Mr. Cuomo is leading the charge. Whenever he can, he drops populist applause lines on working-class audiences. (His current favorite, on the qualities of a good government official: "It's important that the people who are in charge of the food should have been hungry once or twice in their lives.").

pTC He has taken up the cause of cutting Social Security taxes, a tough sell politically, arguing the need for a more progressive tax system. The last two Republican administrations, he contends, have "ripped off" low- and middle-income workers to pay for excessive tax breaks for the rich. He would reverse that trend by sharply raising tax rates for wealthy Americans.

When petroleum prices jumped last month, the governor said the federal government should pressure the big oil companies ("beat them over the head") to cut prices at the pump and, if necessary, impose emergency price controls. He doesn't rule out higher energy taxes, including a big increase in the gasoline tax.

Mr. Cuomo insists that he is giving no more emphasis to national issues today than he has since taking office in 1983. Perhaps it is New York's economic difficulties, for which his own leadership has been faulted, that make rivals accuse him of trying to distract attention from his failures at home by focusing attention on Washington's shortcomings.

In any case, his strategy is what on Broadway they call a twofer: It is working politically in New York this year, and it won't hurt if he takes his act on the road in 1992.

Mr. Cuomo says he has no desire for higher office, but he has left himself ample maneuvering space. Unlike 1986, when he said that seeking re-election meant he wouldn't run for president, he's made no such pledge this time. "It's a whole different world," he acknowledges. Last month, he told The Sun that he would begin traveling and speaking more widely, without regard to whether others interpreted that as pre-presidential campaign activity.

New York Democrats anticipate he'll run, not least because of hints from the governor. Recently, accepting the state AFL-CIO's endorsement of his re-election, Mr. Cuomo vowed to remain organized labor's champion forever, adding, with emphasis, "in whatever position I find myself." (The federation president, as if on cue, pledged labor's undying support, "whatever your future ambitions are.")

Some Democrats theorize that Mr. Cuomo prefers to be drafted for the nomination, but the system doesn't work that way. There is a chance, though, that he could goaded into running. After all, not seeking the presidency, after toying with it so openly for so long, would inevitably diminish his reputation. The son of Italian immigrants insists that being governor of New York was "more than I ever expected that I would be able to do." History might suggest that it wasn't enough.

While he has never been tested outside his native state, Mr. Cuomo would be heavily favored to win the nomination if he ran. Though he has no formal national campaign organization, no other serious Democratic contender is further along at this point. Besides honing his message -- the failure to do that was arguably the fatal shortcoming of the last three Democratic nominees -- he's got millions of dollars in his re-election account; leftovers could be converted to a presidential campaign. He has also kept in touch with former Dukakis strategist John Sasso, who has the national experience the tightknit Cuomo inner circle lacks.

Mr. Cuomo resolutely refuses to quash speculation about a presidential bid, and he's only too happy to discuss it at length. In the way that candidates often talk up their shortcomings, to inoculate themselves against later criticism, he rattles off the reasons others give for his reluctance to declare his intentions ("He must be in the Mafia. . . . There's something wrong with [him], maybe his family. Maybe he's got colon cancer. Maybe he's hiding something. . . . [He's] afraid to do it").

Entering the race too early would only expose a candidate to Republican attacks, Mr. Cuomo points out. But the opposition has him plainly in its sights already. President Bush reportedly urged Mr. Rinfret to "hit Mario Cuomo" in this fall's campaign, and most Republicans added the Cuomo name to their list of Democratic demons long ago. To them, and many Democrats as well, he's the new Kennedy, the liberal they love to hate.

His message is expressed forcefully, even eloquently, but his vision of the future seems rooted in the past. He offers familiar remedies -- more government regulation and greater centralization of power -- hardly the sort of new ideas that Democratic candidates seemed desperately to be searching for in the last campaign. One can easily imagine Bush adman Roger Ailes, in his dreams, composing 1992 commercials that lash out at Mr. Cuomo as another Dukakis, another Northeastern state governor whose economy has gone to pot, another taxer-and-spender out of touch with the real America.

"I think it's the obvious thing to do if you're the Republicans," Mr. Cuomo says mildly, anticipating the assault. "Do I think it works? Nah. None of that stuff works. . . . The people will see you in a campaign. They'll make their own judgment. They like you; they don't like you. A lot of them will not even be able to tell you why."

Right now, with U.S. troops swarming in the Arabian desert and George Bush soaring in the polls, wouldn't seem the best time for Democrats to be turning to someone, such as Mr. Cuomo, without foreign policy credentials. But the governor calculates that domestic concerns will be paramount when Mr. Bush faces the voters two years from now. "The big problem is the economy. And it will remain the big problem, from now to '92 and beyond," Mr. Cuomo says, sounding very much like someone who has been doing considerable thinking in the quiet of his office in upstate New York.

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