New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to members of the...

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to members of the media about recovering efforts after superstorm Sandy in Long Beach, New York. (Oct. 31, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Who would've thought that the Liberal Party candidate for governor in 2002 would be the last line of defense against the public employee unions and catastrophic overspending in New York in 2012?

But that's exactly what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is today -- the last grown-up standing in Albany, if the Republicans in the State Senate fail to cobble together a working majority.

The only thing between New York and out-of-control California is this governor, and the only thing between California and bankruptcy is time. New York's Medicaid and pension costs, and its brutally high taxes, will take this state down if left unchecked.

You couldn't hope for a more perfect protagonist in a political drama: People fear Andrew Cuomo. He's brilliant and ruthless -- the type of leader Machiavelli had in mind when he wrote "The Prince." It is better to be feared than loved, indeed.

But Gov. Cuomo is feared and liked by Democrats and Republicans in New York. His voter approval rating routinely approaches or exceeds 70 percent. That gives him a strong bully pulpit.

But all is not perfect for this showdown. The governor's supposed presidential ambitions could be his kryptonite.

Who can forget that airplane idling latently on the Albany tarmac in December 1991? Andrew Cuomo certainly cannot.

It was to be the plane ride to New Hampshire, the launch of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's presidential campaign. And then the engines stopped.

One can only wonder what effect the silencing of those turbines had on Mario Cuomo's son and trusted political adviser. Long-shot philanderer Bill Clinton was instead elected president that year, at the fortuitous advent of one of the nation's biggest economic booms. Mario Cuomo, the scholarly son of Italian immigrants, the deserving one, came that close to the golden ring of politics, only to let it slip away.

And now, two decades later, that political adviser -- today's Gov. Cuomo -- is one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. It's almost Shakespearean.

Standing between him and the nomination, though, are public employee union leaders who can make or break Democratic presidential aspirants -- the same union bosses who have been trying to stall the governor's Albany reform agenda for the past two years. They have the money, troops and organizational ability to turn the tide in huge primary states like Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and California. They are no doubt reminding the governor's political team of that daily.

These union bosses just engineered two-thirds majorities in both houses of the California legislature. Does anyone expect pension reform in the Golden State now?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is no Gov. Jerry Brown, though. Brown is at the end of his political career and may be content to keep hiking taxes to Scotch tape over California's yawning deficits. Cuomo is smarter and, hopefully, braver than that. New York already has among the worst tax and business climates in America. Hiking taxes substantially would be state suicide. The governor himself has said that.

If he goes nose to nose with the unions for the next two years, instead of capitulating to their demands, Cuomo could reshape the Democratic Party into one that is fiscally pragmatic again. What a legacy that could create.

But then there is that idling aircraft . . .

Can a brave and fiscally pragmatic governor overcome scorned union leaders backing ones' primary opponents?

Probably not.

The temptation of political expediency is about to grow greatly for Andrew Cuomo.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.

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