Ideological Positioning for the 2016 Primaries Has Begun

In 2012, the ideological question Republican candidates confronted was nothing more than whether or not they hated Barack Obama, a test they all passed. But what if you're running for the Democratic nomination in 2016? There may not actually be much to distinguish the candidates from one another. Now that the issue of marriage equality is pretty much settled within the party, if you put together a group of Democrats with national ambitions, they'll have the same positions on pretty much everything.

Which brings us to the interesting case of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who is almost certainly running for president in 2016. Over the weekend, Chris Hayes explained that "Democrats can't count on New York's supposedly Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo," and Salon's Alex Pareene wrote a piece headlined "Andrew Cuomo, Fake Democrat." Both were criticizing Cuomo for seeming to undermine his chances of getting what you'd think every governor would want, a legislature controlled by his party. Right now control of the State Senate hinges on a couple of as-yet-undecided races, and to some observers it seems like Cuomo would actually rather have a divided legislature. Pareene offers his take on why:

And if Republicans get their majority, with the tacit support of Cuomo, the governor will have once again shown that he is not the progressive figure he will likely try to sell himself as if he runs for president. His tenure so far has been marked by flashy liberal victories on issues like gay marriage, along with a quietly conservative economic agenda: A property tax cap, total neglect of mass transit, and (partial) support for fracking. Even on economic issues where Cuomo has more liberal priorities, he rarely pushes his Republican friends particularly hard. (A Republican-controlled state Senate will almost certainly block a minimum wage increase Cuomo ostensibly supports.) There’s a reason, in other words, that the National Review loves him.

Though I'm hardly a seasoned Cuomologist, Alex's assessment seems pretty accurate, and it points to an interesting question: Can you convince presidential primary voters that you're a true believer with a few of those flashy liberal victories, even if your overall record is more conservative than many of the people you'd be running against?

Cuomo is, it's safe to say, not a "conviction" politician whose goal in life is to pass progressive legislation. There are some governors who, if given majorities in the legislature from their party, say "Now's our chance!" and use the opportunity to pass all the legislation they'd been fantasizing about for years. In recent years, Republicans have been particularly enthusiastic in doing this; elect a Republican governor and a Republican legislature, and chances are that before you know it you'll have measures passed to crush labor unions, set up obstacles to voting, restrict reproductive rights, and a whole host of other items on the conservative wish list. But Cuomo looks like he doesn't want a raft of progressive legislation coming to his desk; better to elevate his profile on a few issues, like marriage equality or his recent declaration that Sandy and other events like it are the products of climate change, and not let the liberals pull him too far to the left.

Although it remains to be seen what kind of presidential candidate Cuomo will make, I think this kind of ideological dance is easier for a Democrat than for a Republican. While there are some candidates so clearly to the right that Democratic primary voters won't consider them (see Joe Lieberman's 2004 run), beyond that there's a lot of wiggle room. To return to 2008, a lot of Democrats considered Obama more liberal than Clinton, but that may have been more a way of translating their non-ideological feelings of enthusiasm for him into terms that sounded more rational (I'll admit I was probably guilty of this myself). Now that he's served a full term, it's clear that Obama isn't more liberal than Clinton would have been at all. Ideology wasn't why Obama beat Clinton, and it probably won't be the deciding factor in 2016.

It's possible that Cuomo looks at that history and says to himself that he's already passed the ideological-credibility test, so why risk anything by having to sign something like a marijuana-legalization bill? And with a divided legislature, he could have just enough gridlock to keep him safe.

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