In Britain, soldiers and politicians who came out of the world wars with enhanced reputations were said by their peers to have “had a good war.” Similarly, in coronavirus America, some politicians have had a “good pandemic.” But no politician in the country turned in as Churchillian a performance over the past year as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo became a hero to Democrats across the country last spring, his stature on par with President Barack Obama.
Cuomo became a hero to Democrats across the country last spring, his stature on par with President Barack Obama, with live-streamed daily press briefings that projected steely resolve and paternal authority in the face of a deadly menace. The New York Times’ media columnist Ben Smith called him “the executive best suited to the coronavirus.” As the 2020 Democratic presidential primary dragged on, buzz circulated that Cuomo would be a better candidate than Biden.
Brash and seemingly no-nonsense, he was a welcome relief from former President Donald Trump, whose approach to the virus ranged from denial to conspiratorial gibberish. With Cuomo at the helm, New York would keep a stiff upper lip and flatten the curve by itself. As the pandemic worsened, the governor’s approval rating shot to its highest level since his 2011 inauguration, and into 2021 it remains higher than at any point since 2018.
Yet Cuomo’s star turn is at odds with his actual record. The governor’s confident bluster has obscured his habit of dismissing scientific expertise in service of burnishing his own reputation and asserting his final authority over every lever of power and policy in the state. Perhaps the better World War II comparison for Cuomo is not Churchill but Joe Keller, the defense contractor patriarch from Arthur Miller’s play “All My Sons,” who evades responsibility for selling the military defective plane engine parts. Cuomo says he wants New Yorkers to be safe, of course, but he also wants to project an image of complete control. And he does whatever he can to keep a vice grip on the spotlight and decision-making. His Machiavellian impulses seem too often to take precedence over good government, even in times of crisis.
The most glaring example of Cuomo’s preference for control is unfolding right now. An investigation by the New York State attorney general found that the governor’s office may have misled the public on the number of pandemic deaths in nursing homes after it ordered elderly people hospitalized with the virus returned to their facilities. (Cuomo has rebutted this assessment, saying any claims of inaccuracies are a “lie” while admitting “we should have provided more information faster.”)
Cuomo’s mistakes have not stopped him from using the pandemic to build a national reputation as an anti-Trump crusader.
Nevertheless, according to Attorney General Letitia James, “New York State Department of Health’s (DOH) published nursing home data reflected and may have been undercounted by as much as 50 percent.” In an astonishing moment, one of his top aides admitted to state legislators that the administration withheld publishing some data to avoid taking a political hit from Trump. The U.S. attorney in Brooklyn and the FBI have also begun a preliminary investigation.
Cuomo’s mistakes have not stopped him from using the pandemic to build a national reputation as an anti-Trump crusader. But Trump’s gone now, and the virus is still here. Democrats need to reckon with Cuomo’s record — and the record of other politicians on both sides of the aisle who have used Trump, the pandemic, or both to elevate their profile ahead of 2024 and beyond.
Take the governor’s approach to indoor dining and mass social gatherings like weddings. Cuomo moved up the date for reopening indoor dining by two days to February 12th, pointing to declining Covid-19 positivity rates. He has promised that New Yorkers will be able to have weddings with up to 150 attendees by April.
But plenty of epidemiologists and public health authorities think indoor dining and large social gatherings are very bad ideas right now, especially as far more contagious new variants of the coronavirus appear throughout the country. When a reporter asked Cuomo if restaurant workers putting in shifts at reopened eateries should get vaccines, the governor batted the question away and called it “a cheap, insincere discussion.” Coming under fire, he reversed course the next day.
Those who have followed Cuomo’s tenure may be less surprised to see him overruling his own experts. As the New York Times reported in great detail, Cuomo “all but declared war on his own public health bureaucracy,” driving nine senior officials to resign recently in frustration. Instead of deferring to public health officials — in fact, Cuomo explicitly said he doesn’t trust experts — the governor has sought advice on vaccine distribution from wealthy longtime political allies like Cuomo "enforcer" Larry Schwartz, whom the governor also installed on the MTA board despite a lack of any real transit experience. Schwartz has adopted Cuomo’s style: he blamed systemic failures like a subway software bug on "hackers" without evidence and publicly doubted the credibility of the veteran reporter who uncovered the problem.
The pattern has repeated throughout the pandemic. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is no one’s idea of a proactive, crisis-fighting executive, but when he called for a shelter-in-place order in March, Cuomo dismissed the idea. “The fear, the panic is a bigger problem than the virus,” Cuomo said in mid-March. Soon enough, of course, the city and state had no choice but to impose the order, but delays across America almost certainly exacerbated community spread.
When de Blasio suggested schools might have to remain closed through the end of the 2020 academic year, Cuomo bigfooted him once again. When the 2020-2021 school year began, only one quarter of the city’s 1.1 million students felt safe enough to return to any in-person classes. As cases mounted in the fall following a summer respite, de Blasio sought to roll back the reopening of indoor dining, only for Cuomo to overrule him. Inevitably, indoor dining closed completely in December as infection rates returned to levels not seen since the virus first appeared in New York.
And it's not just Cuomo's Covid-19 record that has attracted scrutiny. After establishing a commission to look into endemic political corruption to much fanfare, Cuomo and his staff meddled in the investigations and eventually shut them down completely. He sucked millions of dollars out of the nation’s largest and most important transit system (several million of which went to prop up failing ski towns) and undermined his own hand-picked superstar subway guru Andy Byford so thoroughly that Byford fled to London. After Republicans lost their last redoubt of power in 2018 when the Democrats took the state senate, Cuomo hired a number of state GOP political operatives and gave them senior roles in his administration, where they have slowed an effort to legalize marijuana despite popular support.
Cuomo’s record speaks for itself, and it’s a far cry from the rosy picture the national media painted a year ago. His leadership bears little resemblance to the tale of triumph he presented in his premature pandemic memoir. New York did not, in fact, best the Covid-19 “mountain” through “the power of ‘We,’” as the Cuomo administration suggested in a bizarre promotional poster. Cuomo’s briefings may have been a comfort to many in the spring, when there was precious little relief from Trump’s gleeful malevolence. But it’s time to stop grading Democrats on the Trump-era curve.