The conversation

Cuomo Thought There Was No Limit to His Power

Besieged on multiple fronts, the governor is no longer holding forth; he’s just trying to hold on.

Gail Collins and

Ms. Collins and Mr. Stephens are opinion columnists. They converse every week.

  • March 8, 2021
Cuomo Thought There Was No Limit to His Power 1
Credit…Seth Wenig/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Gail Collins: Well, Bret, much to talk about as always. But I guess we should start with Andrew Cuomo.

Bret Stephens: I can’t believe I’m saying this, Gail, but Cuomo may make former Gov. Eliot Spitzer look good by comparison. At least Client 9’s behavior was, well, transactional, as compared to Cuomo’s creepy come-ons. And the cover-up of the nursing home Covid death count strikes me as possibly criminal and definitely worthy of impeachment. Especially since he was also trying to peddle a book about his Covid leadership skills while he was busy fudging the numbers.

What’s your view?

Gail: Have to admit it makes me sad. But the double whammy seems impossible to overcome. If it had just been the sex part we could have had some interesting conversations about what’s acceptable in an era that combines feminism with a fairly expansive view of what people — at least unmarried people — can and can’t do.

Bret: “If It Had Just Been The Sex Part” could have been the title of a memoir by anyone from Caligula to Johnny Rotten. Sorry, go on.

Gail: But the nursing home cover-up is something that could have ruined Cuomo’s career all by itself. All the stuff we need our leaders to be pandemic-cautious about, and there’s the governor concealing the real story on how many nursing home deaths New York had under his watch.

Bret: The cliché is that the cover-up is worse than the crime, but in this case I’d say they’re about equal. Cuomo is also the guy who effectively required nursing homes to admit patients with coronavirus, which looks like another catastrophic mistake.

Gail: Still, I have to admit the sex part fascinates me. The easiest way to judge fairly, I think, is to ask yourself how the public would react if a woman governor had been coyly propositioning young men in the administration.

Bret: My gut reaction to your scenario is that it sounds very “Ooh la la,” like it could be a movie starring Cate Blanchett as Gov. Fatale, whereas Cuomo’s behavior is strictly “Ugh Yuck,” like it could be a movie starring Mickey Rourke. I just don’t think it works in quite the same way.

Gail: If young workers in a state capitol started complaining that their female governor was touching them inappropriately, I sorta doubt the voters would see it as a glamorous movie.

Bret: Fair enough. But I think there’s a larger point, which has to do with the perils of de facto one-party rule. Cuomo behaved the way he did, in part at least, because he felt his power was unchecked and unlimited. That kind of power always corrupts. At this rate, maybe there could even be a Republican comeback in the Empire State.

Gail: You know, voters in super-Democratic places aren’t always scared of electing Republicans to high office. Look at Gov. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts — not to mention Mitt Romney. We’ve had Republican governors in New York. We’ve had Republican mayors in New York City. Voters don’t think they can do much harm when they’re blocked by Democratic legislators. And I think they imagine it might save some money.

Don’t have much faith in that last part of the theory myself, but hope springs eternal.

Bret: I’ve always been a fan of blue or purple-state Republican governors, like Larry Hogan or Chris Sununu. They’re good at taking care of the nuts-and-bolts of governance while steering clear of the moralistic thunder and lightning.

Gail: By the way, have you been following all the controversies about voting rights? Republicans around the country have been trying to make it tougher for people to vote — eliminating mail ballots, imposing tougher registration rules. They’re even trying to get rid of Sunday voting in Georgia, where congregants from Black churches go together to the polls after service.

Bret: One of the many reasons I despise Donald Trump is that he took perfectly legitimate policy issues, distorted and lied about them to suit his personal needs, and rendered them politically radioactive. Ballot integrity and public confidence in elections is a legitimate issue. In New York’s upstate 22nd district, we had a congressional race that took over three months to resolve because of a lack of uniform ballot-counting standards and a tidal wave of absentee ballots. In Pennsylvania, a state court ruled that the deadline for late-arriving mail-in ballots would be extended, resulting in the addition of about 10,000 ballots to the overall vote tallies and giving fodder to people claiming the election was rigged. It’s bad for democracy.

Gail: One problem has always been that people who were elected to office under the old rules are not always enthusiastic about spending a lot of money to make the system more efficient for their future opponents.

Another is that the folks who get disenfranchised by a complicated set of rules are generally lower-income, frequently younger and often minorities. Back in the day I sat through a lot of legislative debates on these issues and I did notice that Republicans were always coming up with ideas to make the system more secure that would also make it more intimidating for nervous beginners.

Cuomo Thought There Was No Limit to His Power 2
Credit…Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Bret: I’m all for making sure that everyone has access to the ballot, particularly those for whom access isn’t easy. I also think that last year was an exceptional one on account of the pandemic. But we shouldn’t want to make the exception the rule going forward, for instance, by making ballot harvesting legal in every state. We don’t need election night to turn into election month.

Gail: Ballot harvesting is that system where a person receives an absentee ballot, fills it out, and then relies on somebody else to get it returned. That can be a good deed — or a system party workers use to control the voting. We just need to make sure it’s only used for good purposes. There was a big scandal in North Carolina a while back involving (cough, cough) Republicans.

Bret: Well, exactly, and it kinda makes my point: Republicans cheat, too, and every time there’s too much of a gap between the voter and the ballot box, there’s also an opportunity for mischief. So there ought to be a bipartisan interest in forbidding ballot harvesting, period.

Meantime, it looks like Joe Biden is going to get his stimulus package passed, after some legislative nips and tucks. I take it you’re pleased with the overall result?

Gail: There are some nips and tucks I could live without, but the big idea is right on. The way out of this crisis is to spend tons of money getting people vaccinated and giving the economy a very big boost. Spending saves lives.

I take it you don’t agree?

Bret: Well, if it were up to me we’d have a much smaller bill and the Fed would at least signal that it’s prepared to raise interest rates to avert inflation. The usual argument for big government spending is to soften the effects of a downturn, but now we’re pumping money into a giant upturn. Steven Rattner is right: Once the inflation tiger is out of its cage, it will be hard and painful to put it back in.

Gail: Just taking one second to imagine the inflation tiger. Maybe he’s one of those circus ones who comes when you crack a whip.

Bret: Or Shere Khan from “The Jungle Book.” As for the bill itself, the most I can say on its behalf is that I’m happy Joe Manchin is in the Senate as a Democrat. We should not pay people more money to be on unemployment than to have a job, especially as the economy opens up again. We should not be sending benefit checks to people with upper middle-class incomes. We should not make it harder for restaurants and other small businesses to hire people by raising the federal minimum wage.

Gail: We should just make it harder for people working in restaurants and small businesses to survive? Maybe we can hold a little party on June 16 to celebrate the anniversary of the longest period in American history without a federal minimum wage increase.

Bret: I guess this is how democratic government is supposed to work: Neither side is getting quite what it wants and the moderates are in the driver’s seat. Neither of us can totally complain.

Gail: Well, we can still complain a little, right? Otherwise we’d have to change the name of The Conversation to Quiet Contemplation of a Perfect World.

Bret: Agreed. Let’s keep finding things to complain about. You know, the masks are about to come off, which means the gloves are, too.

Gail: I have confidence we’ll come up with a gripe or 40.

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