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Has Cuomo taken the Clinton playbook too far?

Cuomo’s current predicament is a lesson in what can happen to an ambitious Democrat who pushes the Clinton strategy of triangulation to the breaking point.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y., July 28, 2014.

To Andrew Cuomo's long-shot Democratic primary opponent, the most surprising response to the explosive new ethics allegations against the New York governor is the lack of response. “What's so striking is this deafening silence,” says Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law professor who is running to Cuomo’s left in the September primary.

The silence runs in two directions. Teachout is dismayed by the absence of cries for investigation into a New York Times report that Cuomo tampered with a supposedly independent commission he created to investigate corruption in Albany. “It's the best evidence that we have an old-boy network in this state,” she told msnbc.

Equally conspicuous is the dearth of strong public support for the governor from within Cuomo’s own party. Unlike Bill Clinton, Cuomo’s political mentor, who has found plenty of friends to stand behind him when the going got rough, Cuomo’s defenders have been more isolated and tepid.

"His style is an asset until it's a liability."'

Cuomo looked up to former President Clinton almost as much as he did his own governor-father. But the younger Cuomo’s current predicament is a lesson in what can happen to an ambitious Democrat who pushes the Clinton strategy of triangulation to the breaking point, keeping one eye on the White House while losing sight of the base.

The most obvious culprit of Cuomo’s troubles is his aggressive style. “Everyone here is afraid of him,” said one Democratic strategist, explaining why he (like several others who spoke to msnbc) asked that his name not be used.

What looked to voters like ruthlessly pragmatic problem-solving in better times now takes on the darker cast of shady backroom power politics. "His style is an asset until it's a liability,” said a former aide, who also asked not to be named.

If Cuomo turns around to find he’s been abandoned, it may be because he’s earned a reputation of kneecapping the people who are supposed to be his friends when he perceives a threat. As secretary of housing and urban development, Cuomo allegedly tried to intimidate the department’s inspector general, according to a harassment complaint she filed. 

His predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, one of a long list of New York Democrats who have tangled with Cuomo, once called him “the dirtiest, nastiest political player out there.” Cuomo has fought with Attorney General Eric Schneiderman over control of a Wall Street settlement worth more than $600 million, organized a public rally against New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s education policy, and made a deal with Senate Republicans that many Democrats say sabotaged the party from holding a majority in the upper change. 

But to liberal Democrats in the state, his bigger crimes are ideological.

"These are Reagan policies, these are not Democratic policies."'

On one hand, Cuomo has vigorously pursued a progressive social agenda on issues like gay marriage and gun control. On the other hand, he’s staked out a fairly conservative approach to the economy, fighting to cut taxes, reduce the size of government, and reform education against against the will of organized labor. “These are Reagan policies, these are not Democratic policies,” says Teachout.

He’s been a favorite of Manhattan moneymen, some of whom have warm memories of his father, and has taken money from liberal boogeyman David Koch and GOP mega-donor Ken Langone, who started the group Republicans for Cuomo.

Cuomo’s not-so-secret grand strategy has been to drive up his numbers with conservatives in the state so that he may one day sell himself to a national audience as a pragmatic Third Way Democrat in the mold of his political mentor, Clinton. 

But Cuomo is from New York, not Arkansas, so to keep liberals on board he’s directed their focus to his social policy achievements. “Other states look to New York for the progressive direction,” he said after the state passed same-sex marriage. 

While liberal voters have been mostly happy with Cuomo, resentment among progressive activists came to a head this spring after a contentious budget process, when the labor-backed Working Families Party threatened to withhold their endorsement. The party ultimately relented after a heated internal struggle, but tensions with the left remained when the Times investigation dropped.

“Andrew Cuomo is dying by the sword he lived by,” says Richard Brodsky, a Democrat who served 14 terms in the State Assembly and has known Cuomo for 30 years. “There was an ideological bedmaking here that has left him with a significant primary opponent and a charge of ideological impurity.”

When support from his party has come, it’s been sporadic and somewhat tepid. “I see the argument that it was the governor’s commission, it was staffed by him, and they served at his pleasure,” said Democratic Senate minority leader Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, echoing -- but not exactly endorsing -- the governor’s response to the allegations.

"Activists have been griping about Cuomo and his Wall Street ties for years, but everyone remembers gay marriage and just lets him slide. It’s maddening"'

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who served with Cuomo in the Clinton administration, called the governor “a person of high integrity,” but also said that the controversy is “not something I know a lot about.”

The question remains, however, whether voters will care. A Siena College poll from mid-July found Cuomo enjoying overwhelming support. Even 65% of self-described liberals said the governor had been doing a “good” or “excellent” job. Over 90% of respondents didn’t even know enough to have an opinion about Teachout.

“Activists have been griping about Cuomo and his Wall Street ties for years, but everyone remembers gay marriage and just lets him slide. It’s maddening,” said another progressive Democratic strategist who asked not to be named, for fear of alienating himself with the leadership of a party loyal to Cuomo. 

Teachout, who only entered the race this summer, sees the controversy over the commission as her chance to gain momentum. “It's totally changing the campaign,” she said.

“People haven't had a way to understand why people are suffering,” Teachout explained. “This scandal helps voters understand that this isn't the state of nature, it's not accident, that this is a governor who is serving his donors ... not the people of the state of New York.”