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Democrats Stop Electing Bullies

The problem with Cuomo is no one has ever liked him.” — Richard Ravitch, a former Democratic lieutenant governor.

I have not met a person yet in New York politics who has a good relationship with Andrew Cuomo.”—- State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a Democrat. NY Times March 13.

The Andrew Cuomo sexual harassment scandal should raise a more systemic problem: why Democrats elected an abrasive bully to three terms as New York Governor. Cuomo’s personality problems were well known when, running in a primary against the progressive-backed Cynthia Nixon in 2018, he swept heavily Democratic parts of New York City. Prior to the recent scandal Cuomo was favored to win a fourth term despite his obnoxious behavior.

Republicans who don’t value democracy understandably favor bullies like Donald Trump, Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani. Taking pride in brutalizing political opponents has become a virtual requirement for many Republicans seeking federal office.

But Democrats are supposed to back more humane values. Yet Democrats elected not only Cuomo but gave New Jersey’s Christie two terms as governor and New York City’s Guiliani two terms as mayor. Heavily Democratic Chicago also gave two terms as mayor (2011-19) to the notoriously abusive Rahm Emanuel.

Republican success at shrinking national government has convinced many Democrats that getting anything done requires strong and even abrasive politicians to cut through bureaucratic obstacles.

Why are Democrats electing politicians they would not like as neighbors, classmates or co-workers? Andrew Cuomo and Rahm Emanuel would be the villains in Disney movies, the characters the audience roots for to get their comeuppance.

I have two explanations

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First, Republican success at shrinking national government has convinced many Democrats that getting anything done requires strong and even abrasive politicians to cut through bureaucratic obstacles. This explains why many voters do not see women presidential and governor candidates as sufficiently “tough” while male bullies get elected.

Second, for decades we have heard how President Lyndon Johnson twisted arms to get civil rights legislation passed. Johnson’s bullying of segregationists was cheered, and was contrasted with predecessor John F. Kennedy’s weaker approach.

Andrew Cuomo, a Governor without friends or political allies, was first elected after the weak, accidental governorship of David Patterson. Patterson took office following the resignation of another bully, former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer. Spitzer, like Giuliani and Christie, gained political prominence after being a prosecutor.

Bullies Aren’t Progressive

It’s time to stop using President Lyndon Johnson’s successful 1960’s bullying for civil rights laws as a model for achieving progressive change. LBJ has proved the rare exception. Bullies like Cuomo and Emanuel betray progressive interests and when Democrats elect them more humane policies lose.

Joe Biden has never sold himself as a bully. And if the American Rescue Plan starts a pattern of his proving that non-abusive governance can deliver results Biden will have transformed our view of leadership. Biden’s success could scuttle the LBJ myth of progressive bullying once and for all, and may make it less likely that Democrats elect politicians like Cuomo and Emanuel in the future.

Bill Clinton’s “end welfare as we know it” mantra was part of that bullying agenda. Many have noted how the Plan’s massive attack on child poverty reverses Clinton’s demonization of low-income families, part of his campaign strategy that led to his election in 1992. Clinton went on to eliminate the federal welfare entitlement to facilitate his re-election in 1996; every Democratic Senator up for re-election except for Minnesota’s late progressive hero Paul Wellstone backed the repeal.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

When people feel government is working for them they don’t feel the need to elect abrasive bullies like Andrew Cuomo. There is a difference between standing firm on principle and abusing subordinates and fellow politicians; Biden’s success may help steer Democrats away from candidates like Cuomo in the future.

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron