Posted: February 7, 2018
hen Andrew Cuomo was preparing his 2010 gubernatorial campaign in New York, a friend of mine told him that Mario Cuomo’s three terms as governor, from 1983 to 1995, had been a failure. Andrew agreed: his father had not succeeded in Albany. Given the Cuomos’ fierce loyalty, this admission must have been bitter for Andrew, his father’s closest aide and confidant. But many Democrats and even former aides to the first Governor Cuomo now share the belief that his time on the national stage was one of great promise and meager performance.
Thus, the underlying tension in Saladin Ambar’s short, earnest study, American Cicero: Mario Cuomo and the Defense of American Liberalism. “Mario Cuomo was, and remains, the best alternative progressive voice to the politics of Sunbelt conservatism in the past thirty years,” Ambar contends. “Cuomo’s governorship represents an important counter-narrative to the rise of conservatism in the 1980s.” Ambar, a Rutgers University political science professor, tries to elevate Cuomo into the liberal pantheon while recognizing his flaws as a politician.
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A big reason for Mario Cuomo’s importance during conservatism’s ascendance in the 1980s was that the other prominent liberals—Tip O’Neill, Walter Mondale, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, and Michael Dukakis—all proved to be, in one way or another, inadequate to the challenge posed by Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, preeminence among such Democrats neither required nor proved much. One former Cuomo aide tells Ambar caustically, and off the record, “I thought Cuomo was a great owner or manager of a five and ten cent store who became owner of Bloomingdales.” Ambar admits that his biographical subject “seemed to lack policy focus.” Prominent among his legacy were tax cuts and more prisons, accomplishments dismaying to liberals like Ambar. “A dynamic, comprehensive progressive agenda simply wasn’t to be had,” he notes sadly.
Cuomo, the boldest voice for liberal Democratic politics in the Reagan era, made the famous statement that politicians “campaign in poetry” and “govern in prose.” But his former speechwriter Peter Quinn now admits that Cuomo’s three terms were light on achievements, and that Cuomo “did more poetry in government” than he did prose. Therefore, Ambar is left with Cuomo’s speeches, especially his two most influential ones, both from 1984: the keynote address at the Democratic convention, and his Notre Dame speech on abortion and Catholicism.
Cuomo’s 1984 convention speech offered all the red meat partisans could wish for. Writing after Cuomo’s death in 2015, historian and former Democratic speechwriter Jeff Shesol said it “brought catharsis.” The speech “was all the things that Democrats wished themselves to be but no longer felt they were as a party,” a success achieved by drawing “indignation from some inner store of strength and conviction, not from mere calculation.”
Cuomo’s poignant personal story, a working-class Italian American from Queens who made good, encouraged the convention delegates’ hopes to reclaim Reagan Democrats. America, Cuomo said repeatedly, was a “family,” and Americans took care of their family members. Reagan was touting an improving economy in 1984, but Cuomo said that “this nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ than it is just a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’” Democrats from John Edwards to Bill de Blasio have repeated this theme over the past three decades. Like them, Cuomo spoke as if the chastening liberal setbacks of the 1960s and ’70s had never happened, instead touting a New Deal politics frozen in the amber of the 1930s and ’40s.
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Reagan’s 1984 landslide victory was a stark repudiation of the dour vision of America that Cuomo set forth. The economy was growing and Reagan’s hard line against the Soviets would pay dividends in a few short years. Even 61% of Cuomo’s fellow Catholics voted for Reagan.
Just two months after the convention, Cuomo travelled to the University of Notre Dame to deliver a far more significant speech. Earlier that year, New York’s newly installed Archbishop John O’Connor had admonished Cuomo and other pro-choice Catholic politicians by announcing: “I do not see how a Catholic, in good conscience, can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself as favoring abortion.”
O’Connor’s words set off a controversy about the Church and politics. Cuomo, an observant Catholic, had been pro-life early in his political career but found that position untenable as the Democratic Party became dogmatically pro-choice by the early 1980s. Cuomo fashioned his own position: personally opposed to abortion but politically neutral, leaving the decision about having one to women and their doctors, as decreed by Roe v. Wade (1973). With Archbishop O’Connor’s challenge, and another pro-choice Catholic from Queens, Geraldine Ferraro, on the 1984 Democratic ticket, Cuomo would have to explain his position further.
At Notre Dame, Cuomo could have emulated John F. Kennedy’s politically brilliant but theologically dubious speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. As the 1960 Democratic presidential nominee, Kennedy promised that if elected he would follow his conscience in all political decisions, rather than the Church’s dogma or hierarchy. Unlike Kennedy, however, Cuomo took his faith too seriously to compartmentalize his religious beliefs. Furthermore, while Kennedy’s audience had consisted of Protestants worried about a Catholic president, Cuomo spoke to fellow Catholics concerned about a conflict between the Church and a prominent Catholic politician over one of the most contentious moral issues of the era.
Cuomo sought to resolve the tension. He flatly stated, “As a Catholic I accept the church’s teaching authority…. I accept the bishops’ position that abortion is to be avoided.” After making both his obedience to the church and personal opposition to abortion known, Cuomo then described his responsibilities as an elected official. Political prudence should guide the Catholic politician, he argued. First, Catholics should not “force” their religious views on non-Catholics. “We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us,” said Cuomo. Second, he argued, the “legal interdicting of abortion by either the federal government or the individual states is not a plausible possibility and even if it could be obtained, it wouldn’t work. Given present attitudes, it would be ‘Prohibition’ revisited.”
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Problems abound with Cuomo’s formulations. Was opposition to abortion solely a matter of Catholic Church doctrine? Weren’t people of other faiths also pro-life? And couldn’t one arrive at a pro-life position solely from secular, philosophical reasoning? What would have happened if, in an unlikely scenario, the democratically elected New York State Legislature had presented Cuomo with anti-abortion legislation? Would he have signed the bill? Did Cuomo, a trained lawyer, have any issues with the reasoning behind the Roe v. Wade decision? One could criticize the logic of the Supreme Court’s decision without any reference to religious dogma. All such questions went unaddressed, first by Cuomo and now by Ambar.
Yet Garry Wills, neither an anti-abortion zealot nor a fan of the Catholic bishops, also found the speech unpersuasive. “What this means, of course, is that Cuomo claims to believe the Church’s teaching on abortion, but acts as if he did not,” Wills wrote.
Pro-choice critics are infuriated by his belief; pro-life believers are just as indignant at his actions (or lack of them). Since most of the public is not simply classifiable as pro-life or pro-choice, this may be a shrewd political position; but it damages Cuomo in his claim to be a Catholic intellectual who reaches his conclusions from a well-trained conscience and not as a matter of political expediency.
There was yet another reason why Cuomo chose not to follow JFK’s lead on religion and politics: throughout his career, Cuomo repeatedly connected his liberal politics and Catholic theories of social justice. He opposed the death penalty on moral grounds, a stand that put him in opposition to a large majority of New Yorkers. In the 1984 keynote address, Cuomo attacked Reagan as a “man who believes in having government mandate people’s religion and morality,” a few sentences before referring to “the world’s most sincere Democrat, St. Francis of Assisi.” Cuomo also had no criticism of American Catholic bishops when they intruded into national politics in the 1980s with pastoral letters criticizing capitalism and Cold War nuclear deterrence. The letters were thinly veiled attacks on the Reagan Administration and were cheered by many of the same Catholic politicians who would embrace Cuomo’s views on abortion.
Although that formulation of “personally against abortion, but pro-choice politically” would be influential within the Democratic Party, it is hard to escape the conclusion that all the philosophical somersaults stemmed from one very simple fact: pro-life politicians had no future in the Democratic Party. “Cuomo, prudently, does not seem to want to disturb the harmony among liberal Democrats that seems indispensable for political success,” the late Peter Augustine Lawler archly concluded. “He suggests that antiabortion politics is suspect because it is the only thing that separates the bishops, politically, from their fellow liberals.”
Cuomo would serve three terms as governor until he was defeated in 1994 by a little-known upstate Republican legislator named George Pataki. Democrats had hoped that Cuomo would run for president, but in both 1988 and 1992, the “Hamlet on the Hudson” ultimately refused. People still debate why. Ambar ends his book bizarrely, with a trip to Italy where a distant Cuomo relative tells him that Cuomo didn’t run because the Mafia was going to assassinate him because of his liberal political views. Ambar backs off the ridiculous conclusion, but cannot provide the reader with any more insight into Cuomo’s decision.
American Cicero, like too many scholarly books these days, is more interested in mapping out and defending a progressive politics than in analyzing historical events. Ambar admits that he hopes “to strike a balance somewhere between hagiography…and the alternative of footnoting his legacy, where Cuomo is just another northeastern liberal whom history has passed by.” But hagiography is mostly what we get (starting with the book’s risible title). It would have been useful if Ambar had explained why Cuomo failed to restore the Democratic coalition or accomplish more as governor. What political, economic, and cultural forces made liberalism less attractive to Americans in the 1980s? Instead, he turns Cuomo into John the Baptist who “held up a banner upon the rampart for that longed-for appearance.” Presumably, Ambar is referring to Barack Obama as the Messiah of this narrative. So much for leaving religion out of politics.
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Readers who want to understand Cuomo’s failures and liberalism’s dilemmas would be better served by Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City, a gracefully written and compelling account of New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis and its impact on city and national politics. New York City provided its citizens with fairly generous social programs, including city hospitals and a free university system, but those costs began to grow in the early ’60s. The city’s payroll ballooned. Increased budget expenses were funded by many sources of revenue: a newly created city income tax, increased aid from state and federal governments, and a booming national economy.
In 1969, the nation experienced a minor recession from which it quickly recovered. New York City, however, continued to hemorrhage jobs after 1969. Revenues declined. In response, the city borrowed even more money. By 1974, total municipal debt was around $10 billion, nearly half of it short-term debt that continually needed to be refinanced at increasing rates of interest. In addition, the city continued to fund general expenses from its capital budget, meaning that spending on infrastructure was shortchanged. Budget outlays for social services began to outpace spending on basic city services, which then started to decline.
New York City had faced similar “crises” in the past, but the one in 1975 was distinctive because it was a vote of no confidence against an already troubled and struggling city: bankers found themselves no longer willing to gamble on New York’s future. Even before the austerity measures kicked in, New York was in trouble. In the early 1970s, near the end of John Lindsay’s two terms as mayor, one poll showed that six out of ten New Yorkers thought the city worked poorly, while another showed that 45% of New Yorkers believed their neighborhoods had gotten worse under Lindsay. Crime rates and general public disorder had risen dramatically since the early 1960s. Graffiti and vandalism covered the city’s public spaces. Racial tensions and labor strife also took their toll.
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The city’s bankers, long happy to profit by lending prodigious amounts to the city, had decided by 1975 that adding to the debt burden was a risky proposition. The city’s borrowing window closed. The decent yet hapless mayor, Abe Beame, who had previously served as comptroller, never quite understood what was happening. Phillips-Fein, who teaches history at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, recounts Beame’s cluelessness in the wake of the city’s inability to borrow. (When I interviewed him two decades after the crisis, he indignantly waved yellowed newspapers clippings pulled from his desk that “proved” he was not to blame for it.) To Beame, the bankers were the villains for failing their moral responsibility to lend the city more money.
To save the city from bankruptcy, Governor Hugh Carey (Mario Cuomo’s predecessor) stepped in. Working with leaders from the business community, the state created the Municipal Assistance Corporation (MAC), an agency that would raise money by selling bonds on behalf of the city, while at the same time pushing city leaders to prune government spending. Although MAC helped the city get over its immediate credit crunch, it quickly proved ineffective for any long-term solutions.
In response, Governor Carey had the state legislature create the Emergency Financial Control Board (EFCB), whose powers were far more extensive. The EFCB now had de facto control over the city’s budget and could even override labor deals if necessary. It would force the city to pursue an austerity policy of budget cuts and layoffs in an attempt to rein in city spending. These actions finally soothed the bond market, which began lending the city money again. Labor unions also pitched in by using their pension funds to buy MAC bonds.
President Gerald Ford resisted pleas for the federal government to bail out the city (“Ford to City: Drop Dead,” read the notorious Daily News headline). But this was mostly a negotiating tactic to force the city to make the cuts it had resisted. Once Carey instituted the EFCB, Ford had the federal government pitch in relief for the city as well.
Mayors Lindsay and Beame had always opposed budget cuts, loudly proclaiming that they would devastate the city. Now there was no choice. In addition, the democratically elected city government basically turned over control to an unelected board, made up mostly of businessmen. Quality of life and city services had been declining for a number of years, but the budget cuts exacerbated those problems. The fiscal austerity imposed upon the city by the EFCB would ultimately allow the city to borrow again, but at a cost. Police officers and firemen were laid off. Library hours were reduced. Basic city services, already strained, suffered even more. New Yorkers of modest means, disproportionately affected by the cuts, voted with their feet. The city’s population declined by more than 10% during the 1970s.
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Under Mayor Ed Koch, New York eventually regained control over its finances and proceeded with tempered goals for city government. The fiscal crisis did, to a large extent, discredit the policies of the Democratic Party’s left wing. When combined with issue of crime and law enforcement, it pushed the city’s politics toward the center and led to the mayoralties of Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Bloomberg.
Although the fiscal crisis is sometimes seen as a preview of the Reagan Revolution, Phillips-Fein correctly notes that fiscal austerity was not imposed on New York City by conservative Republicans driven by free market beliefs. The key players, rather, were moderate to liberal Democrats like Hugh Carey, who believed that government had an important role to play, but also understood that reckless fiscal policy had endangered the stability of New York.
Phillips-Fein tells the story relatively well and is blunt about the failings of New York’s governing class and the bankers who continued to lend the city money until they decided they couldn’t anymore. Her story focuses on the behind-the-scenes figures dealing with the fiscal crisis, but is also sensitive to how the fiscal crisis affected average New Yorkers, especially the poor and minorities.
She also argues that the fiscal crisis was not entirely the city’s fault, examining federal and state policies that subsidized highways and suburbanization. There is certainly a good deal of truth to the fact that big cities were fighting serious headwinds in the postwar period. Yet if Phillips-Fein is correct, we would have seen dozens of large and small cities edge toward bankruptcy at this time. With the exception of Cleveland, however, no other big city faced a similar fiscal crisis. In fact, though Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago also struggled with issues of crime and poverty, it never came close to New York’s fiscal meltdown. Boston had been wrestling with economic decline since the 1920s, but had begun in the 1950s to rebuild its downtown business district, lure jobs back to the city, and improve its tax base with controversial urban renewal projects. While its difficulties continued through the ’70s, Boston never saw anything like what New York experienced.
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There is something unique to New York’s story, which is where Fear City’s argument falters. For Phillips-Fein, the uniqueness is the “unusually expansive and generous local welfare state,” which made New York “an island of social democracy in the midst of postwar America.” New York “was at the left edge of urban liberalism, demonstrating that it was possible to run a city government that did far more for its citizens that most American cities ever dreamed of accomplishing.” Her vision of this mid-20th-century social democratic utopia relies on a heavy dose of myth and nostalgia for Popular Front leftist politics. (It ignores Catholic schools, hospitals, and charities, for example.)
It’s true that during the Great Depression and World War II there was a movement, influenced by New Deal liberalism, to expand city services and build infrastructure, parks, and pools that would improve the lives of New Yorkers. But that was not the proximate cause of the 1975 fiscal crisis. In 1955, the city budget was $1.78 billion; five years later the budget was about 30% higher. By 1965, the budget had grown to $3.8 billion and then doubled again by 1970. By 1974, the city’s budget had ballooned to $11 billion. Even accounting for inflation, it had increased by over 300% in less than 20 years. The problems with the city’s budget derived much less from the social democratic ethos that had begun in the 1930s than from the increasing pressures on the city’s finances beginning in the early 1960s, especially from the costs of welfare and health care.
The second problem with this idea of “social democracy” is that well before the fiscal crisis, many New Yorkers were concerned about the quality of the services the city provided. Phillips-Fein admits that the city hospital system had been criticized for “being underutilized and inefficient.” Before the fiscal crisis, open enrollment in the city university system had seriously strained the system. It was not just a question of money, but of what New Yorkers were getting for their money. That shiny vision of a social democratic utopia had become severely tarnished by the late 1960s.
In addition, Phillips-Fein and other promoters of “social democracy” ignore the fact that such policies need to rest on a commonality of interests and a broader sense of civic unity that, while existing to some degree during the New Deal and war, had broken apart by the 1960s with little hope for revival. Leftist identity-politics activism since that era has been a major factor working against any notion of shared interests or civic solidarity.
The EFCB’s fiscal austerity must be understood in the light of expanding city budgets and declining city services. No doubt the cuts imposed after 1975 were painful, but Phillips-Fein makes it seem as if the city has been living on rice and beans for the past four decades. By the 1980s, City Hall had regained the trust of the markets and was able to begin spending again. Even Rudy Giuliani showed little desire to trim spending as mayor. Today, the city’s budget is $82 billion—after adjusting for inflation, about 41% higher than it was in 1974. New York continues to provide social services to the homeless and mentally ill, an extensive system of subsidized housing, and a university system with close to two dozen campuses.
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The fiscal crisis may have restrained some of left-wing Democrats’ grander ambitions, and reinforced the notion that revenues and expenditures ought to have some relation to each other, but one can hardly call New York City’s government frugal. At best, the austerity regime instilled in city government a limiting principle, the absence of which, William Voegeli argues in Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State (2010), has long been liberalism’s fatal flaw.
The sense of limitations on what the welfare state could realistically accomplish was also missing from Mario Cuomo’s soaring rhetoric. Ambar barely mentions the fiscal crisis, even though it made the public more skeptical of the plans that proliferated in Cuomo’s eloquent speeches. He would grandly proclaim an expansive liberal agenda, while pursuing more fiscally prudent policies in actual governance. (He served as the largely ceremonial New York secretary of state during the fiscal crisis and had little to do with Governor Carey’s efforts to save the city.) This cognitive dissonance hurt Cuomo because he was never able to square his New Deal political agenda with post-fiscal-crisis realities. He lived in a rhetorical world where the fiscal crisis, like the other upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, had never occurred.
Phillips-Fein is also torn. Rightly critical of the city’s pre-1975 fiscal policies, she still maintains her belief in social democracy. Was there another way out for New York City, a way to pay for its social spending while making sure that business and the middle class didn’t leave for the suburbs? She is rather dour about the path that the city has taken since the fiscal crisis and resists celebrating the city’s renaissance, yet the reader is at a loss to figure out what should have been done differently. She dislikes policies that encourage business development and skew toward capital, bemoaning “the embrace of private enterprise as the sole way to fuel social development.” But without the revenue from such business activity, how could the city afford its $82 billion budget?
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The left still has not figured out how to pay for its promises. States and municipalities continue to struggle with the problems inherent in the “blue-state model.” Puerto Rico and Illinois face severe fiscal crises. Other jurisdictions are sure to follow as pension obligations and health-care costs continue to drive some of their governments toward the insolvency New York faced in 1975. New York’s leaders provided one model for escaping bankruptcy. It was not perfect, but did prevent default and paved the way for the city’s rebirth. But that model also directly challenges the fundamentals of progressive political economy.
American Cicero and Fear City each details how progressive politics was thwarted by historical events. Mario Cuomo should have taken the Democratic Party to its rightful place and slain the dragon of Reaganite conservatism. But he didn’t. New York City should have found a way to continue its social democratic practices without resorting to austerity policies and heavy reliance on the private sector. But it didn’t.
Both books highlight the problems of American liberalism in the ’70s and ’80s, and struggle to make sense of those problems’ underlying causes. In the eyes of many progressives, after all, liberalism is on the “right side of history.” Therefore any failures of liberalism cannot be its own fault, but instead must be blamed on the insidious forces of “reaction.” Yet these histories of New York during the ’70s and ’80s show how difficult this period was for those who fancy themselves on the “right side of history.”
If you see history as divided into these categories, then you are going to have a hard time explaining the messy reality of the past, and serious problems trying to cope with the messy realities of the present.