As Donald Trump emits streams of false statements about the Covid-19 crisis and makes decisions that will lead to a tremendous number of unnecessary deaths in this country, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo has emerged as something of a national media darling.
The right-wing tabloid New York Post (3/21/20) reported that “New York Women Are Crushing on Andrew Cuomo,” while other outlets run columns with headlines like “Help, I Think I’m in Love With Andrew Cuomo???” (Jezebel, 3/19/20) and “Why We Are Crushing on Andrew Cuomo Right Now” (Vogue, 3/22/20). (Answer: “There’s something nice about having someone in government whom you can actually trust.”) New York Times media columnist Ben Smith (3/16/20) argued that “Mr. Cuomo has emerged as the executive best suited for the coronavirus crisis.”
Some are even floating the idea of the Democratic Party nominating Cuomo, who did not enter the 2020 presidential race (but has long harbored presidential ambitions), as their candidate, even without him earning a single vote (e.g., Newsday, 3/26/20; Daily Caller, 3/24/20; Bloomberg, 3/29/20).
But how much can we actually “trust” Andrew Cuomo? And how well has he managed the crisis in New York?
Yes, he is projecting both empathy and competence in a way Trump never will, filling a leadership void that people desperately need filled at the moment. But particularly in times of crisis, when executive power tends to expand dramatically, media should be holding the powerful to account, not settling for “better than Trump.” And there is plenty to hold Cuomo to account for.
First, as Ross Barkan (City and State New York, 3/18/20) pointed out in a rare critical look at Cuomo’s response, the governor dragged his feet on shutting down the state, wasting precious weeks after the first local cases were identified that could have drastically reduced the spread of the virus. On March 18, Cuomo publicly declared he wouldn’t approve a “shelter-in-place” order for New York City, even as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio suggested residents prepare for one, because “the fear, the panic is a bigger problem than the virus” (CNBC, 3/18/20). The governor reversed course two days later, but by then, identified cases in New York had grown to over 8,000, setting the state on the path to the crisis that is only beginning to unfold today.
Cuomo was not only slow to react to the growing crisis, he continues to make decisions that prioritize his neoliberal agenda over the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable: As he battles Trump with one hand, with the other he is continuing his longstanding efforts to cut healthcare and hospital funding and education support, roll back bail reform, and give himself the power to unilaterally slash government services rather than raise taxes on the rich to deal with budget gaps.
Before the Covid-19 crisis struck, New York faced a budget shortfall, due in part to rising healthcare costs. But rather than look for ways to raise funds to cover those costs, Cuomo put together a commission tasked to carve at least $2.5 billion out of state Medicaid spending. The commission’s plan, announced as the state healthcare system had already begun to stagger under the crisis, includes roughly $400 million in cuts to hospitals over the next year (Daily News, 3/27/20).
As local activists have pointed out, there are many other ways to close the budget gap that don’t involve cutting essential services—at least 14 concrete options for new taxes on, or an end to various subsidies for, the ultra-rich and corporations. But Cuomo is so committed to his corporate-friendly deficit-busting that when the emergency federal Covid-19 aid package to states (including $6.7 billion to New York) included a clause prohibiting changes to Medicaid programs, Cuomo declared that he couldn’t accept it (Politico, 3/27/20). Stop and think about that: Cuomo’s instinct is to forego billions of dollars of desperately needed aid because he is unwilling to give up Medicaid cuts which themselves will directly jeopardize the lives of those most at risk of dying from Covid-19.
Meanwhile, he is ignoring calls for rent suspension for residential and small business tenants, despite enacting a similar measure for mortgage payments (Gothamist, 3/24/20). And rather than working to reduce the incarcerated population in his state, as many other governors are doing, he is actually actively attempting to lock up more people by rolling back hard-fought bail reforms that went into effect in January (Rolling Stone, 3/25/20).
None of this should come as a surprise; Cuomo has never been a friend to the marginalized in New York. For years, he protected turncoat Democrats in the state legislature who caucused with Republicans, giving the minority party the ability to quash all progressive legislation (New Republic, 5/12/17). Even after the 2018 midterms finally gave Democrats full control over the state government, Cuomo put the brakes on popular initiatives that would have strengthened the social safety net, helping to kill the drive for single payer in New York (Nation, 5/2/19) and vetoing wage theft protections (LaborPress, 1/2/20).
But journalists and pundits appear either shamefully ignorant of or callously unbothered by Cuomo’s disregard for New York’s most vulnerable. In his own love letter to Cuomo, CNN‘s Chris Cillizza (3/24/20) declared that in contrast to Trump, Cuomo
is offering another path: To believe in all of us, knowing that by protecting the least among us we are showing ourselves and the world how America fights and wins these toughest of battles.
The same day on CNN.com (3/24/20), the headline to a column by Jill Filipovic announced, “Thank God for Andrew Cuomo.” In it, Filipovic argued that “In America, people do die because they’re poor, but that’s because of policy choices we make”—and presented Cuomo as the antidote, pointing to Cuomo’s tweets about not putting a dollar figure on human life, rather than investigating his actual record.
At the New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd (3/29/20) wrote a lengthy column that featured in the paper’s Sunday edition about how “we’re feeling warm and fuzzy about the cold and calculating Andrew Cuomo.” In it, Dowd briefly noted that “progressives still have problems with Cuomo’s stances on Medicaid and the criminal justice system,” but spent much more time contrasting Cuomo to Trump, proclaiming that “Cuomo thinks what defines America is its humanity and its welcome mat for the globe,” and quoting admirers both begrudging and unreserved.
Meanwhile, at the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker (3/24/20) wrote that Cuomo’s “in-charge demeanor and straight talk remind us of what a leader looks and acts like,” and highlighted a speech in which he declared, “love wins, always, and it will win again through this virus,” while the paper’s editorial board (3/24/20) dedicated its day’s ink to praising Cuomo for his “effective, tough-minded, compassionate leadership.”
It’s hard not to grasp for heroic leaders in a time of crisis, but heroes don’t talk about love and compassion while sacrificing the most vulnerable—and it’s media’s job to expose that hypocrisy, not swoon under Andrew Cuomo’s spell.