WASHINGTON — Washington -- GOV. BILL CLINTON of Arkansas has good reason to be delighted by the thrust taken at him by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York. But Democrats who have been waiting breathlessly for Cuomo to save the day may have reason for uneasiness.
In Clinton's case, the episode is pure political gold. Since Cuomo would be the instant frontrunner if he entered the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, the imperative for each of the six already in the field is to get himself juxtaposed against Cuomo as his principal adversary. Cuomo picking on Clinton suggests he sees the Arkansas Democrat in that role, and Clinton is not likely to argue with that.
But what may be more revealing -- and disconcerting to astute Democrats -- is the issues on which Cuomo chose to sting Clinton, cutting welfare costs and making loans universally available to college students. In both cases Clinton has directed his appeal at the middle-class voters essential if the Democrats are to have any realistic chance of defeating President Bush next year.
Clinton has made "personal responsibility" a centerpiece of his domestic policy proposals. He has called for more emphasis on forcing welfare recipients who can work to take jobs and on forcing deserting fathers to pay child support. Welfare reform is not an issue Democratic candidates discuss very often because of their fear any mention of it will be seen as a coded crack at black voters. And some liberal activists, most notably in New Hampshire, already have been saying Clinton's use of the issue is a worry. But most politicians believe welfare costs are a genuine voter concern, as David Duke has been demonstrating in Louisiana this year.
Clinton also has reached out to the middle class by recommending that all college students be eligible for loans with the option of paying them back through payroll deductions or with some fixed period of public service.
In an interview with New York magazine, Cuomo made it clear neither idea sat well with him. On welfare, he is quoted as saying of Clinton: "He says they shouldn't be on welfare forever. Maybe in his state they are. In my state, they're on for an average of two years." Then, in an interview with the Washington Post, Cuomo added: "I don't want to make people on welfare a whipping boy -- or lady, as is the case, since 80 percent of the people on welfare in my state and most states are women and children."
On the college loan plan, the magazine quoted Cuomo as saying: "Where do you get the money? Isn't this one of those big bureaucratic programs you're complaining about? Where are the details? . . . It's a lot of baloney." Then, talking to the Post, he added that he didn't "want to fight with Clinton, I really don't," but was simply raising questions about the financing of ambitious new programs. Cuomo always has a benign construction to put on his politics.
To some degree, a polarization of the Democratic Party between Cuomo and Clinton has seemed inevitable as the New Yorker moved closer to a candidacy. The resistance to another liberal from the Northeast is stiffest in the South, and Southerner Clinton is perceived as the most moderate if not conservative candidate in the field. Moreover, Cuomo and Clinton already have exchanged a few shots, in part because of Clinton's role as head of the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization dominated by moderate to conservative Democrats.
But the striking thing about this little dust-up is that Cuomo seemed oblivious to two strong currents in the electorate today -- concern about welfare costs and the availability of college education for those whose families cannot afford to finance it. In 1988 Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis' single most popular idea, although drowned out in the debate over the flag and Willie Horton, was his plan for making college financing universally available.
Specifics aside, the contretemps raises new questions about whether Cuomo has the temperament for a presidential campaign. He is a remarkably prickly politician, quick to quibble with others, whether they be reporters or rival candidates, and slow to concede a point to anyone.
For Bill Clinton and his supporters, Mario Cuomo's zingers are the ultimate form of flattery. If Cuomo doesn't like him, he must be doing something right. For other Democrats, the episode is a reason to scratch their heads and wonder.