Washington -- AS FOUR YEARS AGO Mario Cuomo used to argue that he couldn't take himself entirely out of the presidential speculation because it would be arrogant and presumptuous on his part to declare, like General Sherman, that he would neither run nor serve. This time Cuomo keeps saying he has " no plans to make plans" to seek the presidency.
A different shtick but the same results: The New York governor singlehandedly snarls the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Cuomo argues in his usual forceful and combative style that he should be able to discuss national problems without having everything he says cast in terms of speculation on a presidential campaign. That is what he was doing the other day, for example, when he made a speech at the American Stock Exchange contending that states and cities face "one of the worst fiscal crises in history" and that the White House is "more interested in debating quotas than in discussing economic growth."
That formulation sounds like just what a prospective candidate might be saying these days, but Cuomo insists the logic is flawed. Speaking to the New York State Broadcasters Association last week, he put it this way: "Why should it be that if you happen to have eight and a half years as governor, having all that background, having a platform to discuss national issues, if you do it any plausible way, then it follows you should be running for president. And if you're not, then there's something wrong with you. Either you've got a Mafia uncle hidden away in a closet or you've got some serious illness or you've got some psychic indisposition. Why should that be?"
But Cuomo cannot be so disingenuous as to believe he can give speeches on national issues that make him a leading critic of President Bush without becoming part of the Democratic equation. As he concedes himself, he is not some backbench congressman blowing off steam for the hometown press but governor of the nation's second most populous state.
Moreover, ever since he gave that spellbinding speech at the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco he has been a lTC darling of the liberal activists looking for a candidate of the left who can make their case in a compelling way.
Nor does Cuomo avoid the things that encourage speculation. Despite his disclaimers, he is now planning a series of speeches detailing the failures of the Bush administration. Despite his disclaimers, he is planning two trips abroad later this year -- again, just the kind of thing undeclared candidates do to keep themselves in the forefront of the speculation until they are ready to move.
For the Democrats, Cuomo is such a complicating factor, first, because he is the party's best-known national figure among those who might credibly be considered serious possibilities for the White House, a qualifier that probably eliminates Jesse Jackson and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. That stature allows him to delay any campaign as late as November and still be assured of the ability to raise the necessary money. Cuomo keeps arguing that if he were planning to run, he already would have had to build the machinery for a campaign but nobody in politics buys that line.
What makes him such a problem for other Democrats is his ability to alter the dynamics within the party. Right now, for example, the early favorite of the liberals is Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who has been giving redfaced speeches to appreciative party audiences all over the country.
But few professionals would argue that Harkin could sustain that position if Cuomo were in the field.
Then there is the question of how his candidacy could affect conservative Democrats. They might be able to swallow Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia although his voting record may be more liberal than they would prefer. But if Cuomo runs, his candidacy almost certainly would move those conservatives to form an anyone-but-Cuomo coalition behind a less liberal alternative such as Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee or Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council -- meaning someone they believe could compete more effectively in the general election than another Northeastern liberal.
Cuomo knows all this. He knows, too, that he could clarify the situation either by taking himself firmly out of the picture for 1992 or by sending some less oblique signals that he intends to run. But Mario Cuomo prefers to play games while his party stews.