From a campaign bus, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York shakes hands with supporters on Oct. 30, 1994.
James Estrin/The New York Times/Getty

Mario Cuomo, one of the last liberal lions of his time

Updated

Mario Cuomo, the three-term governor of New York who was tempted to run for president but never pulled the proverbial trigger, was a progressive hero. Champion of the poor, carrier of the liberal flame – he was one of the left’s last true liberal lions before the party’s Clinton-era swerve toward the center.

Cuomo, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 82, was vehemently opposed to the death penalty. A Roman-Catholic, he believed in a woman’s right to choose. He spoke out against Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts, and vigorously criticized the growing disparity between the country’s rich and poor.

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But even as Cuomo became the party’s liberal darling in the 1980s, the Democrats – after getting thrashed by Republicans in 1984 and 1988 – moved in a more centrist direction. Cuomo’s own party forked away from his brand of fire-breathing populism, moving instead toward the Bill Clinton-esque “New Democrat” mold.

Cuomo will perhaps be best remembered as the embodiment of the liberal spirit in the Reagan era. “His legacy will be as a key thinker in the progressive movement, someone who really focused on and made real what Americans were thinking and felt about the disenfranchised during the height of the Reagan era,” said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University.

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“It’s an idea that didn’t catch on with as much fervor perhaps as quickly as he hoped,” Zaino added. “In the ’90s and 2000s, the party really did move away from what Cuomo represented.”

In 1991, Cuomo quite literally made room for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s rise, when at the last minute, he decided not to run for president himself, leaving behind a plane running on a tarmac in Albany that was set to go to the early voting state of New Hampshire to deliver the necessary paperwork.

Clinton was far more of a centrist than Cuomo, pushing for welfare reform, favoring the death penalty, and pushing for more prudent budgets. Clinton’s campaign was known for constantly turning to public opinion polls and putting forth policies based on them. And he didn’t exactly endear himself to progressives by rolling back Glass-Steagall and deregulating banking in 1999, which was partially to blame for the 2008 financial crisis.

We’ll never know if a presidential candidate Cuomo could have won. But the last national poll taken before Cuomo dropped his bid showed him with 29% support of Democratic voters and a strong lead against his potential Democratic rivals.

Cuomo, the son of Italian immigrants, is best known for his 1984 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, in which he skewered Reagan’s vision of America and re-energized liberals during a Republican-dominated era. “There is despair, Mr. President, in the faces you don’t see, in the places you don’t visit in your shining city,” he famously declared.“This nation is more a tale of two cities than it is just a shining city on a hill,” Cuomo added. 

Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College, called the speech the “highpoint of the progressive era of liberalism” at the time. “But after the leadership of the party took a very serious beating in 1984, they quickly moved sharply to the center,” he added.

Save for a few progressive icons – like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — the Democrats’ centrist approach continues to dominate. Even Cuomo’s son, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, governs more like a Clinton than a Cuomo.

RELATED: Liberal lion Mario Cuomo dies at age 82

But according to Zaino, as issues like inequality, fair pay and Occupy Wall Street protests have surfaced in recent years, in some ways Cuomo was a “man ahead of his time … In the last five years or so, the party is coming back to more of his points of view.”

There will likely always be speculation about what would have happened if Cuomo, with his deeply-held beliefs, had run—and won the presidency. “The theory I ultimately gravitate toward is that Mario Cuomo was attracted to the nobility of a lost cause,” says msnbc’s Steve Kornacki. “This is a man who could have looked at all those Democrats running away from George H.W. Bush and his 90% approval rating and decided that maybe this was a race that needed him. And this is a man who, upon realizing that he might actually win, could just as easily have decided he didn’t want the trouble.”

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Andrew Cuomo, Mario Cuomo and Ronald Reagan

Mario Cuomo, one of the last liberal lions of his time

Updated