WASHINGTON -- A dozen years ago in a debate with then-Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Republican gubernatorial nominee Lew Lehrman accused Cuomo of hiring a pollster to determine what issues were popular and then shaping his positions accordingly. Cuomo pounced on him, asking: "Like the death penalty?"
It was well known at the time that Cuomo steadfastly opposed imposition of the death penalty in the face of public-opinion polls strongly favoring it. Cuomo narrowly beat Lehrman for the governorship in spite of his unpopular position on capital punishment.
As governor, Cuomo on 12 separate occasions has vetoed bills designed to write the death penalty into New York state law, yet has been re-elected twice. New York voters, while disagreeing with him on capital punishment, have come to respect his consistency and willingness to take a firm and moral stand on the issue and stick to it.
In a poll by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in 1989, New Yorkers were asked whether Cuomo's opposition to the death penalty, and his preference for life sentences without possibility of parole, made them think more or less favorably toward him. About 36 percent said they felt less favorably to 24 percent who said they felt more favorably and 40 percent said it didn't matter much or at all to them. In other words, nearly two out of three voters surveyed indicated that Cuomo's opposition to the death penalty wouldn't cause them to vote against him.
But fear of crime is on the rise in New York as everywhere else in the country. Recent polls of New York voters by the Gallup and Harris public-opinion organizations have found that a whopping 74 percent now favor the death penalty. At the same time, other polls indicate high negative ratings toward Cuomo as he bids for a fourth four-year term.
In this context, Cuomo's announcement the other day that he will ask the state legislature to approve a constitutional amendment leaving to voters the decision on the death penalty is being questioned by critics as a politically motivated retreat from the consistency that has always been a source of public support for him. Cuomo insists it is nothing of the sort and he predicts that if voters have a choice between the death penalty and the life without parole that he advocates, they will side with him.
Under Cuomo's proposal, voters would have those two options plus life with the possibility of parole. But he says he doesn't think the Republicans in the state legislature will want to risk putting the issue before the voters in that way and risk losing the issue.
John Marino, the former New York State Democratic chairman running Cuomo's re-election campaign, says he welcomes the Republicans making Cuomo's "consistency on his beliefs and his principles" the issue, "because they will lose on that issue."
Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute poll and a longtime Cuomo-watcher, notes that Republicans have always shied away from running against Cuomo on any "character" issue because his reputation for integrity has always been so high. But they may feel that Cuomo's call for the constitutional amendment may give them an opening.
Miringoff speculates that Cuomo may be trying to craft his re-election campaign against Republican state Sen. George Pataki as a contest between himself and obstructionist Senate Republicans. Before the voters of New York would get a crack at deciding on the death penalty, two consecutive legislatures would have to vote for the amendment. The Republicans control the state Senate and Pataki has dismissed Cuomo's idea as "a gimmick."
Marino insists that Cuomo long has favored "letting the people decide" on the death penalty. He cites a radio broadcast last February saying the same thing, but now Cuomo has put the constitutional amendment out as a direct proposal for legislative action.
The chances are that it will never get beyond the arguing stage. In the meantime, it may give Cuomo some flexibility on the controversial issue -- and ammunition to his foes who know that his consistency has been one of his strongest suits with voters.