Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s drive toward a progressive mantle has included gun control and marriage equality, a higher minimum wage and a fracking ban. Last week, he added the Excelsior Scholarship — a program to make state college tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000 a year. And at the bill-signing ceremony at La Guardia Community College, Cuomo took a victory lap.
There was the soaring rhetoric: “We say the dream lives.” There was the guest of honor, Democratic heavy-hitter Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t the only top Democrat to stump for Cuomo’s college plan. He launched the campaign with Sen. Bernie Sanders in January — meaning he has been lifted up by both of his party’s 2016 candidates, a nice boost as 2020 gets closer.
As that date approaches, the notches on a potential Cuomo campaign belt are increasing — particularly with the support from the big guns plus some breathless national coverage about his tuition scholarship. There have even been some skeptical (and often questionable) criticisms of the plan from the right, nice praise for a prospective liberal warrior. Cuomo has said he is focused on the next governor’s race in 2018, but a national outlook keeps creeping into his messaging. And though the next presidential cycle is lifetimes away we very well may spend them considering Cuomo and to what degree his history in New York launches him to the big stage his father almost played.
The early case for Cuomo might take into account that the Democratic bench is heavy with age and Washingtonians — the senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren or maybe-still-game Joe Biden. As President Donald Trump nears a chaotic 100 days, the nation might be looking for a more experienced hand. Cuomo, perhaps, could chart a path similar to the one that nearly worked for Clinton. The old slogan “a progressive who makes progress” would undoubtedly return. Appealing to upstate and downstate audiences is good practice for a general election. And the kudos from Clinton and Sanders bolster his policy bona fides.
But there is also an argument to be made that Cuomo the dealmaker is unsuited for a populist moment, and the college scholarship provides an example. The Excelsior Program is a good conceptual step forward for New York, but it is an incremental win that mostly affects a small portion of the middle class. Many New Yorkers are already able to cobble together free state college tuition through grants, and Cuomo’s new scholarship pays the bills for a small new group. The City University of New York estimates 10 percent of total undergraduates will be eligible, and the state system estimates 20 percent. Many of those already receive full scholarships from other sources.
That’s hardly providing Sanders’s free college for all in one go. But it’s a good example of what Cuomo has done well — work the levers of the system when he feels the timing is right. He has not, however, always led the way or twisted the arms of Republicans or moderate Democrats. Where other Democrats are having a field day opposing the president, Cuomo has a long-standing relationship with Trump and met with him before Trump took office, identifying areas where they might work together.
Will the leftmost wings of the party go for that kind of dealmaking? As Cuomo tries on the liberal mantle that his father wore so well, can he convincingly remain in the progressive zone he switched to when law professor Zephyr Teachout gave him a primary scare in 2014? If that wing of the party ends up ascendant, Cuomo may find himself with a difficult sell. His evolution and incremental gains like the college program may not be enough to exhort a nation to the polls.
Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.