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Mario Cuomo's Lost Cause

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York who died on New Year's Day, is being remembered as a liberal lion and a great orator. Many of the remembrances and obituaries mention his speech at the Democratic convention of 1984.

"A hundred years from now, if there is one speech that people will study and remember from a Democratic politician in the last quarter of the 20th century, it will rightly be Cuomo's 1984 address," argued Andrei Cherny, who has himself written speeches for Democratic politicians.

Even conservatives can admire Cuomo's willingness to stand for his principles when they weren't especially popular -- even if we are mostly glad that they weren't popular. It must be said, though, that his convention speech hasn't aged well. To read it now is to see why Cuomo had such an electrifying effect on liberals, and why liberalism in his era was so hopeless.

It is also to see that Cuomo's undoubted oratorical gifts were sometimes merely demagogic ones. The theme of his speech was that the U.S. in the years of President Ronald Reagan was not the "shining city on a hill" of Reagan's speeches but rather "two cities," and that Reagan had no concern for the one mired in poverty. Cuomo introduced that theme with a distortion:

Ten days ago, President Reagan admitted that although some people in this country seemed to be doing well nowadays, others were unhappy, even worried, about themselves, their families, and their futures. The President said that he didn't understand that fear. He said, "Why, this country is a shining city on a hill."

In the actual speech Reagan had given 10 days earlier, he had neither "admitted" that many people were worried about their economic condition -- which would not, of course, have been much of an admission -- nor expressed bafflement that they might be. He had instead said that Americans shouldn't be fearful about the future in general, and about the Cold War in particular.

The distortion allowed Cuomo to segue into a shopworn caricature of conservatism, which on his telling amounted to "social Darwinism." "Make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class and those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class."

He then provided a history of the Republican and Democratic parties that would make Parson Weems blush at its simple-mindedness. "The difference between Democrats and Republicans has always been measured in courage and confidence," he said. Republicans "believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of the trail." Democrats, by contrast, "believe that we can make it all the way with the whole family intact, and we have more than once." Maybe the governor should have reviewed his party's history from the 1850s through the 1880s to see just how inclusively it defined the American family.

He returned to 1984. The Democratic Party, which had "saved this nation from depression, from fascism, from racism, from corruption, is called upon to do it again" -- and to save it "most of all from the fear of a nuclear holocaust." This part of the speech doesn't hold up well. Cuomo makes it sound as though re-electing Reagan would lead to a civilization-ending inferno. It was hysterical at the time, and quite quickly proven wrong. The Berlin Wall came down five years later.

Cuomo's speech also offered an explanation in advance for Reagan's re-election. After describing Reagan's record as he saw it, Cuomo added, "That its disastrous quality is not more fully understood by the American people I can only attribute to the President's amiability and the failure by some to separate the salesman from the product." These are explanations that losing political movements often find tempting: Our opponents are just too slick, and the American people too stupid. (Some conservatives resorted to these excuses when Bill Clinton was a popular president, and when Barack Obama was re-elected.) 

It was a speech full of nostalgia for the Democratic triumphs of previous decades and lamentations for the Republican depredations of the present. But it offered nothing for the future. Cuomo said nothing about how the country should be governed to meet the challenges of the 1980s.

On the strength of such speeches, Cuomo got a reputation as a kind of American Cicero. He was "probably the nation's most gifted philosopher-politician," David Nyhan wrote in the Boston Globe in 1999. Yet this speech, and perhaps even more the celebrations of it, showed just how badly the liberalism of the 1980s needed reform -- and how incapable of providing it Cuomo would have been even if he were interested.

Which is why Reagan won a landslide that year and changed the direction of the country over the course of his career, while Cuomo is remembered mostly as an eloquent spokesman for a moribund cause.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net