What could have been.

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Catch of the Day: Imagining a Mario Cuomo Presidency

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Catch goes to Jonathan Ladd, who points out that a Mario Cuomo presidency beginning in 1993 would have disappointed liberals. I agree. On policy, at least, it would have been difficult to distinguish the hypothetical Cuomo presidency from the actual Bill Clinton presidency. By 1993, we were solidly into the era of the partisan presidency, and so party, rather than person, would have determined any administration's policies.

On the other hand, Clinton’s transition was notably awful. His original staffing decisions, including Chief of Staff Mack McLarty, worked out terribly, and the vetting process for executive-branch officials took a long time to start running smoothly. Some of that was a consequence of the Democrats' 12 years out of the White House, but some of it was the self-imposed choice to avoid anyone from the Jimmy Carter White House. And some of it was probably because Clinton has never shown great skill at personnel judgement.

It’s not a major stretch to connect Clinton’s inept first year to some of the legislative setbacks he encountered, to his very weak early approval ratings, and ultimately to the 1994 Republican landslide. There’s no way to know how Cuomo, who died Jan. 1, would have done in similar circumstances. It’s easy to imagine Republicans doing even better in the South during a Cuomo administration than they did with Clinton, but overall, there’s reason to believe Cuomo might have come out of 1994 in better shape than Clinton did.

Yet Clinton became a skilled president once he finally achieved a functional White House. We don’t know whether Cuomo would have done so, too. Clinton’s perseverance helped; we don’t know how Cuomo would have reacted to setbacks. And although we don't know whether there would have been any significant policy differences, it’s hard to imagine Cuomo doing better with the economy, at least in 1995 through 2000.

And when it comes to disappointing liberals? Clinton had a major advantage: liberals expected less from him. Cuomo might well have defeated welfare reform, but he would have had to compromise with a Republican Congress if one was elected in 1994. In any case, many liberal priorities would have died by filibuster in the Senate, and liberals would have blamed Cuomo for weak leadership.

So: Nice catch!

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net