Campaigning in poetry

MarioCuomo1Mario Cuomo once famously declared that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. It is difficult to think of any politician who more strongly exemplifies this than, well, Mario Cuomo.

Other political leaders famous for their soaring rhetoric – think of Lincoln, Churchill and Reagan – are famous also for specific and long-lasting achievements. Apart from the tragically curtailed career of JFK it is hard to think of anyone as rhetorically gifted as Mario Cuomo who managed to leave office with so little to show for it.

For twelve years the elder Cuomo was governor of this state. He temporarily improved its fiscal health. He doubled state spending and, um, what, exactly came of that? Did he banish poverty, solve crime or heal racial divisions? This is not just to suggest that his policies failed. One could certainly make that case for Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty but, for better or worse, LBJ left the nation with substantial legislative achievements. Medicare and Medicaid are still in place – indeed, much expanded. But where is the legacy of Mario Cuomo?

It is not the intention of this column to belittle the late governor. He was passionate in his politics and that, in itself, is worthy. He raised the quality of political debate – at least, in its poetry. The black mark on his campaigning – the posters declaring “Vote for Cuomo, not for the homo” when he sought the New York mayoralty against Ed Koch – are something for which he always denied responsibility. This column cannot solve that decades old question. Was it Cuomo or some overenthusiastic supporters who ran that hit campaign against Koch? What we can conclude is that the attack on Koch embittered the relationship between the two politicians who dominated the state’s politics for much of the 80s. If Cuomo had identified and disowned the people responsible, that relationship would have been much smoother.

Common Sense would argue that the legacy of Mario Cuomo is in the governance of his son. Mario was beloved by liberals and Andrew is despised by them. But it was the younger Cuomo who gave the state gun control and gay marriage. The father had a wholly dysfunctional relationship with the state legislature. The son twists arms and gets things done. 

When rhetorical gifts are misdirected they can be a barrier to achievement rather than the foundations of a political legacy. The poetry of Cuomo’s “two cities” keynote at the 1984 Democratic Convention was majestic. But the content dripped with poison and hatred. If he believed what he said about Ronald Reagan and his supporters then it shows that he had little or no understanding of how conservatives think. This is hardly conducive to making deals and building alliances.

Democrats and Republicans; mayors, presidents and legislators were victims of his acid tongue. Is it any wonder that he enthused his existing supporters while winning over almost no-one to his side?

Most famously, Mario Cuomo blew his chances. He was a favorite for the Democratic nomination in 1988, but preferred to wait. He believed that George H W Bush was undefeatable in 1992, and got that judgment wrong. 

Sitting out a winnable election through indecision is a mistake that New York’s present governor is unlikely to make. The son learns from the father’s mistakes. Will Andrew Cuomo ever be president? Who knows? But he is already a better governor than his father.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at

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