The 2016 Democratic presidential race just began.
With his successful push to pass a gay marriage law, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo overnight became a national contender, putting down a major marker among the liberal party base that dominates the primaries.
“Most politicians, including most Democrats, have been afraid of this issue. Andrew is the first national figure ever to embrace it so enthusiastically,” said Richard Socarides, the president of Equality Matters and a former Clinton White House adviser. “Clearly, this establishes him as the most important progressive leader of our party, setting him up very well for 2016.”
Come 2016, “Cuomo is the only one who will be able to say ‘I delivered for you’ before everyone else realized it was politically popular, and that will be an invaluable asset,” Socarides said, adding, “it also has the benefit of being true.”
Same-sex marriage opponents also framed New York’s arrival as the sixth state to legalize gay marriage in terms of perceived national ambitions for the governor who pushed the GOP-controlled state Senate to make it happen.
“The Republican Party has torn up its contract with the voters who trusted them in order to facilitate Andrew Cuomo’s bid to be president,” said National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown, in a statement Friday night attacking the vote.
The son of former three-term Gov. Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s story represents a remarkable political comeback, rising from a humiliating 2002 primary defeat in the New York governor’s race and a tough divorce from Kerry Kennedy to become a popular governor. Now, he’ll be surrounded by the presidential buzz that invariably attaches to big state governors.
Cuomo supporters already have fanned the flames privately of his prospects on the national stage: Rumors of his White House ambitions started circulating in New York even before he was elected last year by one of the largest margins in state history — some of them date to the days when he was managing his father’s own multiple flirtations with a national run.
With an accomplished first year in office and a family name that remains golden for older Democratic primary voters, he’ll now likely receive an endless list of invitations for speeches and Jefferson-Jackson dinners across the country. The burst of media attention that’s already helped turn the drama over the gay marriage vote into a national story will only burnish his profile.
“This is one of those funny things where the perception of the profile-in-courage moment actually exceeds the real political risk involved,” said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan. “He’s absolutely at the exact right spot on the arc of history.”
Neera Tanden, the chief operating officer at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said Cuomo’s role in the passage of the marriage law will be a valuable asset.
“Voters tend to reward candidates with points for courage for seeming like they are ahead of public opinion on core issues,” she said, drawing a parallel to how ahead of the Democratic curve then-candidate Barack Obama was in the 2008 race on the Iraq war.
“Think how important it was to Barack Obama that he was against the Iraq War before public opinion moved to his position. Andrew could get that benefit in any future race,” she added.
Of the early potential Democratic contenders, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley says he supports gay marriage but stopped short of making a major push for the legislation earlier in the year, while Virginia Sen. Mark Warner is opposed. Hillary Clinton, if she runs, would still have her commitment to civil unions but not gay marriage from the 2008 race hanging over her — and at least until the end of next year, when she’s said she’ll be done at the State Department, she won’t be able to make any new comments on the issue.
“It gives him an authenticity and a strength with progressives that will provide a real base — not just gays, but progressives in general. Other people can say they’re for same sex marriage, he got it done,” said Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum. “I think it will always now be a hallmark of his political persona.”
Cuomo’s push on gay marriage wasn’t in a vacuum — it came at the end of a tough legislative session when New York progressives were forced to swallow major budget cuts, tough on unions rhetoric and a refusal to even consider renewing the state’s expired millionaire’s tax.
That’s part of the persona he’s crafting too, as Cuomo sets himself up as a governor who’s pushed the party to the left on social issues and toward the center-right on economic issues. It’s a message with both primary and general election appeal, though being so far out-front on gay marriage could be a problem in a November national election.
“He’s created a profile that I think would make him a very effective candidate,” Shrum said. “He’s right on the social issues, and he will be even more right by 2016 than he is now in terms of Democratic primary voters, and in terms of the country, frankly. He’s created a profile of economic stewardship in a very difficult period that is very strong, he’s managed to deal with unions without getting into the kind of destructive confrontations that people like Scott Walker have.”
In the meantime, Cuomo’s potentially painting the national Democrats into a corner for 2012 — already, his action on gay marriage is putting pressure on Barack Obama, and he’s sketching out his vision of how Democrats can cut budgets and refuse tax increases, too.
Richard Brodsky, a liberal former New York assemblyman who’s watched Cuomo for years, sees a distinct political calculus at work.
“It’s a new kind of beast — a ‘progr-actionary’ or a ‘con-iberal,’ where you take the two prongs of the progressive agenda, the focus on the economic health of the middle class and the poor, and the liberation of people who’ve been historically oppressed, and you dump one in its entirety and you seize the other in a very high-profile move,” Brodsky said.
Joe Trippi, the former Howard Dean and John Edwards adviser, said it’s not too early to start the 2016 clock — and, pointing to Michael Dukakis in 1988, noted there’s a precedent for an ethnic Northeast governor appealing to Democrats far away from home.
“I understand 2016’s a long way off, and who knows where things will be then, but certainly, he has to be somebody that the party looks to for leadership once you get past Obama’s reelection,” Trippi said. “He’s putting his stamp on what kind of party he thinks the Democrats should be.”