ALBANY, NY — March 29, 2020 — Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s coronavirus decisions and performance have been close to flawless. He deserves unstinting credit.
Nevertheless. We are all wrestling with the individual and social consequences of events, and understanding our leadership cadres is a useful exercise. And there are cautionary notes that need consideration.
Cuomo’s demeanor has been calm and appropriate. He has been clear and persuasive. He has been ahead of the curve on social distancing and medical preparations. He’s played Trump like a flounder, cooperating in his insistence on drug trials then smacking him on medical preparations.
It’s in comparison to Trump that Cuomo shines. Hold off on judging the merits of Trump’s decisions. By any fair standard of judgment, Trump’s public behavior has been erratic, shifty, self-centered and generally inappropriate. Listening to him complain about how much money he’s lost being president, or how perfect has been his response to the virus, makes my teeth sweat.
In this context, Cuomo’s occasional missteps are worth examination. He had a brief meltdown when, early on, he was asked about “shelter in place.” Things got hinky and loud when he complained of people equating it to martial law. “I spent half my day knocking down rumors that we’re going to imprison people in their homes. I am not going to imprison anyone in the state of New York.”
Within a day he had corrected course, dropped the strident tone and become the avatar of stay-at-home orders, business closings and self-quarantine. No harm, no foul. No one’s perfect. But in times past he has a tendency to overreach and get himself in touchy situations of his own making. (See, MTA, Control Of, or Commission, Moreland Act). Such is not impossible now.
It could come as part of the coronavirus dynamic. Is he too visibly nice to Trump? Is he too visibly mean to Trump? Will his medical and quarantine decisions turn out to be correct? Will he have another meltdown?
It could come as part of his work as governor. Will he try to jam extraneous matter into the budget using his dictatorial powers under Silver v. Pataki? Medicaid program cuts? Bail reform pullback? Emergency decrees? Will tough leadership morph into bullying?
Cautionary concerns about such overreach don’t diminish the luster of Cuomo’s emergence as the face of competent and intelligent public service. He’s earned it. The Trump/Cuomo comparison is a piece of political good fortune for Andrew. A lot of Americans were waiting for a visible alternative to Trump’s idea of leadership. Now they have it. But such a gift is not permanent. Sustaining it is not as simple as holding daily press briefings and shining through the darkness Trump spreads around him. It will require discipline and an ability to take advice and adjust course. I hope he succeeds.
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Original publication by Times-Union on March 29, 2020.
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Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.