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The Political Interest: The New Mario Scenario

5 minute read
Michael Kramer

Just suppose . . .

It is Wednesday, Feb. 19, the day after the New Hampshire primary, and Bob Kerrey has come in third, behind Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton — or fourth behind Tom Harkin, or even fifth behind the Mario Cuomo write-in campaign. A small group of Kerrey backers, the money raisers, visit their candidate. In their minds is an old Eugene McCarthy line: “The motto of the Benedictine order is ‘Keep death daily before your eyes,’ which is a very good motto for politicians.” We’re sorry, Bob, say Kerrey’s men, but you’re dead. The bank is closed. We’re broke, or will be shortly. You can limp along, but without funds it’s hopeless. You’re headed back to the Senate — unless you can cut a deal.

With whom? With Cuomo. To do what? To run on the bottom half of a Cuomo ticket.

Without implicating Hamlet himself, it is possible to say that some people close to Cuomo have spoken with some people close to Kerrey and that a Cuomo- Kerrey pairing is more than idle speculation.

When last we left the Governor of New York on Dec. 20, 1991, the planes were ready and the papers were signed. Cuomo’s formal entry into the New Hampshire primary seemed certain. “But I don’t have a budget,” Cuomo explained, and “I have a first obligation” to the people who elected me. “I want to run for President, but I can’t.” Fast-forward to last Wednesday evening, Feb. 12. The Governor delivers a brilliant political speech at Harvard, and the panting begins anew. In 45 minutes Cuomo runs the gamut from sounding like the liberal Harkin to the neoconservative Tsongas. There is “no free lunch,” he says, aping Tsongas’ hard-nosed view that resurrecting the economy will require a lot more than smoke and mirrors, a lot more than simply awarding the middle class a tax break at the expense of the rich. Don’t say we can’t find the money to do what must be done, Cuomo continues, it’s a matter of priorities — an outright theft of Harkin’s nonspecific field-of-dreams answer to how he’d fund his “new New Deal.” Still, says Cuomo, I can’t run without a budget; but then again it would be “presumptuous” to call off those who are trying to draft me.

One way for Cuomo to seek the presidency involves the mandate scenario: the Governor enters several late primaries to prove his electoral strength as a prelude to Democratic leaders’ corralling a majority of the delegates needed for his nomination at next summer’s convention. But the mandate scenario is risky. One of the current contenders might still catch on nationally, or another candidate could enter the race sooner, which might preclude Cuomo’s entering later.

What Kerrey brings to the party is the fact that he is already on the ballot everywhere. A hobbled Kerrey is like a bankrupt airline whose only assets are airport gate slots. An announced Cuomo-Kerrey strategy signals that a vote for ^ Kerrey is a vote for Kerrey as Vice President, only. When the time comes, Kerrey’s support is converted to Cuomo votes. Before then, it is Cuomo-the- challenger rather than Bush-the-incumbent who adopts a Rose Garden strategy. The dutiful Governor sticks to Albany during the week, tending to New York business as Kerrey tours the country. On weekends, and on a few weeknights as well, the Governor, Elvis-like, is sighted delivering well- crafted speeches in carefully targeted, delegate-rich states like Florida and Texas, and of course throughout the Rust Belt and in California. Cuomo’s modified schedule reduces his exposure, thus limiting the chance for a blowup, which is always possible since the testy and easily tried Governor greets most mornings itching for a fight — and usually gets one by day’s end.

For those afflicted with nostalgia for the future, a Cuomo-Kerrey ticket is seen as “charming.” Their attention, now, has turned to timing and orchestration. One view holds that Cuomo should wait for someone else to challenge the existing field. “Let another big shot take the hit for stepping on the guys who’ve trekked for six months,” says a Cuomo adviser. “Mario could beat any of those mentioned if he goes in. Let it run through Super Tuesday on March 10. There’s plenty of time.” But you never know, says another aide to the Governor. “Better to move quickly to stave off the others and keep it clean. And better to have a deal made public after people like ((Boston Mayor Ray)) Flynn, ((Chicago Mayor Richard)) Daley and, we would hope, ((Democratic national chairman)) Ron Brown, too, come away from New Hampshire urging Mario in.”

A cautionary note: even those involved in the embryonic discussions wonder if the media’s close scrutiny of Kerrey could saddle Cuomo with a tarnished running mate. Dumping Kerrey wouldn’t be pretty, so the Cuomo mandate scenario continues as a real option.

Think about it long enough, and there are a thousand other problems and obstacles to a Cuomo-Kerrey coupling, beginning with whether Cuomo really wants to run. But just suppose . . .

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