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Cuomo vs Nixon Debate and Definition of Politics [Masha Gessen / New Yorker]

September 3, 2018

link: https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-cuomo-nixon-debate-and-the-definition-of-politics   [via NakedCapitalism]

Reminder: NY State Democratic primary for State positions is Sept. 13th

Disclosure: I am for Nixon here, and do some light volunteering for her campaign.


The opening question in the Cuomo-Nixon Debate last wednesday: What of Cuomo’s obvious advantage in experience?

Gessen is saying, I think, that in the “greater battle” to “retake” the US from Trumpism, an inspiring leader is more valuable than an experienced technocrat. Cuomo claimed that NY state needs an experienced governor to help fight Trump by being better able to pull the levers used to defend the status quo.

I would agree with Gessen here. Trump himself had no government experience, and
the “greater battle” is one of politics and advocacy more so than governing or management.

I don’t think it’s hard to see that on the basis of her progressive bona-fides, Nixon is a more inspiring candidate to Democratic primary voters. It is they alone who will decide the governorship in this state. The office of the governor can then be used, in light of the primary importance of politics and advocacy, to advocate progressive issues, which have genuine value in providing a positive alternative to Trumpism. A technocratic or institutional-bureaucratic “resistance” provides no such value, it can offer only a competent technical defense of that which was already rejected by both Democratic and Republican voters.

This is not to dismiss Cuomo’s main argument: that management and governing experience matter in their own right, independent of whether the objectives of government are the ones voters support. That is a tough one for Nixon to beat.


I watched the debate, actually, so I’ll add a few words about that too.

It was “lively” without a doubt, with Nixon calling Cuomo’s bluff at one point and making an impromptu pledge to forego the governor’s salary if elected, and Cuomo doing the same and swearing not to run for President in 2020.

Cuomo played himself, second generation governor, incumbent experienced politician, skilled speaker. Confident, with smugness at times, on on most subjects. The notable exception was when responding to accusations of corruption.

I was more interested in how Nixon would present herself. It was my first time seeing her speak for more than a few seconds (though I’d seen her positions quite a bit in print). She sounded very articulate (an actress!), and came off as phenomenally well prepared. She will make a great politician, and I hope she keeps at it, even if she is not nominated this time.

She was also very aggressive, maybe too much. This was both in substance and delivery. It seemed most of her responses, certainly her most impassioned ones, were about attacking Cuomo, rather than selling her policies on their own merits. And she interrupted a lot, which added a sour note to the otherwise strong impression she made.

To be fair, this was partly in response to Cuomo coopting many of her points, in the form of vague half-agreement in princple. Did I mention he is an experienced politician? He did this in a way that was carefully worded so that can be further diluted later, or just not formed into policy due to “lack of cooperation” from the Republicans in the state senate. But if you want to look for a positive, in this sense, at least, Nixon’s run is already a success – it plants items statewide $15 minimum wage firmly on the table, and opens the door to debate on subjects like single payer and right-to-strike for transit workers, or more broadly, reviving the positive image of unions.

With the exception of that last issue, Cuomo generally tried to steer the debate back to himself on progressive issues, by taking credit for partial achievements made so far in NY state on social justice subjects. This also reminds the audience each time of his experience as the incumbent.

The other card I thought Nixon overplayed was the NYC subway. As someone who grew up in the city and returns frequently (this post is written there), I can confirm how obvious it is that the subway pays world-record construction and operating costs, for infrastructure that is functional but mediocre at best. In many aspects the MTA is plainly inferior to urban mass transit systems throughout the world. (E.g., cleanliness, noise, reliability, cost, aesthetics, thoughtful organization). However, why is this an issue for the NY State? It’s a piece of legislative “pork” for NYC residents. And the historical involvement of the state just perpetuates the complex jurisdictional/budget-process situation. It adds more layers of intermediaries. I think that itself is a top reason why NYC pays world record prices for mediocre design, construction, and service.

But of course both candidates realize that argument won’t sell, so they just promise to throw money at the problem, in proportion to where they think their voters are. In this, I think Nixon, unlike Cuomo, discounts the upstate Democratic vote to her detriment.

As a campaign volunteer, I found her message was a relatively easy sell, actually. Among active Democrat voters with whom I spoke, nobody was defending Cuomo, or made any attempt to speak to anything they thought Cuomo stood for. The sticking point was “Why should I bother” / “She has no chance” / “I support her but don’t really have no time to vote”, in roughly equal frequency to “I didn’t realize there was a primary” / “when is it” / “I moved and am not registered to vote here”.

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