New York governor says America 'was never that great,' drawing gasps

Washington Post

President Donald Trump's political knack, such as it exists, is his ability to make his opponents overreach — to dangle bait in front of them and hope they take it.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, may have just swallowed it whole.

Appearing at a bill-signing ceremony in New York City, Cuomo took on Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan — ostensibly to build up his anti-Trump bona fides as he faces a primary challenge from former "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon. But he may have protested a little too hard.

"We're not going to make America great again; it was never that great," Cuomo said, drawing audible gasps and some applause. "We have not reached greatness. We will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged."

Cuomo's office soon walked back the comments, assuring that Cuomo actually thinks America is currently great and contrasting that with Trump's slogan, which requires that America is not.

"Gov. Cuomo disagrees with the president," spokeswoman Dani Lever said. "The governor believes America is great and that her full greatness will be fully realized when every man, woman, and child has full equality. America has not yet reached its maximum potential."

Cuomo was offering a variation on what Democrats have long argued about Trump's slogan: That it overlooks the really bad things in America's past, most notably slavery. Trump seems to be pining for a day when America wasn't exactly great for a lot of people in this country and, depending upon the date, and when some of those people may not have had very basic rights.

Liberals have even suggested the slogan is a nostalgic, racist dog-whistle for white Americans who feel culturally displaced and marginalized. And polling suggests Republicans do long for a longer-ago version of America than Democrats.

Cuomo's point was about women's equality.

"He has it on his hat: 'Make America great again.' What does that mean? The whole concept is retrospective," Cuomo said Wednesday. "What do you want to go back to, Mr. President?"

But there is a difference between arguing Trump's slogan is overly simplistic and vastly oversimplifying things yourself. And Cuomo's argument is one to which very few Americans subscribe.

A May 2016 poll showed that, while just 19 percent of people said America is as great as it's ever been, another 48 percent said it was still great but less so than before. Another 20 percent said it used to be great but isn't anymore. Just 7 percent said this country has never been great, as Cuomo did Wednesday.

Trump's slogan, like much of his political persona, is meant to troll — to invite his opponents to believe the worst-possible interpretation (often with good reason, I'd argue) and to overcompensate by taking the opposite view.

If Trump says America used to be great, Democrats feel inclined to argue that it wasn't. And for people like Cuomo, who have reason to carve out the most anti-Trump position possible — either to ward off a primary challenge or to build up their profile for a possible 2020 presidential campaign — the temptation to go further to the extreme is almost constantly there.

But you can bet this is hardly a message his party wants to carry into the home stretch of the 2018 midterms.

First published by The Washington Post

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