Although he lost election, Cuomo has winning ideas

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's political stock is so low right now that it's inevitable that when defeated Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York speaks at the National Press Club here on Friday, he'll be asked whether he's going to run for president in 1996.

Although Cuomo's own stock has also gone south after his loss to Republican George Pataki in his try for a fourth term, he remains one of the most articulate and thoughtful Democratic leaders -- a fact that survives his unvarnished identification as a liberal in these days when "liberal" seems to be such a dirty word.


Cuomo scoffs when it is suggested to him that he will be asked about a presidential bid in 1996 when he comes to Washington this week. He says that Clinton deserves to be re-elected, and that he intends to do whatever he can to see that it happens.

What the president himself needs to do, Cuomo says, is to recognize that average Americans are worried about job and income security in the new era of world markets and competition from low-wage countries, and to talk about how to deal with their fears in terms they understand.


Talking about "deficit reduction" and rebuilding "infrastructure," while both are basic to economic well-being, Cuomo says, doesn't connect with average Americans having concerns about job loss -- and about government programs and proposals that seem to look after everybody but them.

" 'Infrastructure' has no political sex appeal," the departing governor says. "But welfare reform does. Never mind that it only makes up 1 percent of the budget. Forget about compassion. People want to know, what about me?" They need to believe that their tax money isn't being squandered, he says, as so many of them now feel about welfare.

What Clinton needs to do, Cuomo says, is defend deficit reduction, improvement of roads and bridges, welfare reform and, yes, health care reform in terms that will point out to middle-income Americans that his proposals will benefit them, not somebody else easily portrayed by critics as freeloaders.

Instead of emphasizing the plight of 39 million Americans who don't have health insurance, making it sound like another "social program," Cuomo says, Clinton should have made more of the fact this year that failing to provide health insurance for them hits average Americans in their own pocketbooks through higher emergency room costs that are passed on to them.

All this year, Clinton did in fact make this point, but Cuomo says he simply didn't make it often enough, nor did he remind voters often enough of the things he has accomplished -- for them, in terms that will convince them they have been helped.

It might be asked, who is Cuomo to give advice, when he himself lost? But he did get elected three times before losing, and Clinton could have done worse than follow some earlier advice Cuomo gave him in the last presidential election.

In the summer of 1992, when it was clear Clinton would be the Democratic presidential nominee, Cuomo urged him to go to the Democratic leaders in Congress, agree with them on an agenda to run on and then tell the voters in the campaign that if they elected him, this was the agenda that a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Congress together would enact.

Clinton did meet with the Democratic leaders but they never came up with such an agenda, presumably because they couldn't agree on what would be on it.


This fall, Cuomo's formula was exactly what the House Republicans led by Rep. Newt Gingrich did in their "Contract with America."

They listed 10 issues for action -- based on polling that told them what voters cared about -- and ran on that agenda, promising at least to bring the 10 issues to the House floor for a vote if they won a majority on Nov. 8.

That contract clearly had a lot to do with their success in winning control, and it continues to be the driving element in the way the Republicans have stolen the spotlight -- and some would say the legislative leadership -- from the president as the new Congress approaches.

Mario Cuomo doubtless will have something to say, when he comes here later this week, about how the country needs to be addressed by the beleaguered president. He may be coming as a deposed governor, but Clinton can do worse than lend an ear to him -- this time.