Progressives should cheer Cuomo vs. de Blasio

The food fight between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is the delight of the chattering class.

Reporters catalog every real and perceived insult; winners and losers are selected; psychoanalysis substitutes for reportage. The accepted meme is that Cuomo is regularly and effectively pounding de Blasio. That includes a string of Cuomo interventions and embarrassments, a potential Cuomo-backed opponent in 2017 and no support for any of the mayor’s pet projects.

Once in awhile someone mentions the effect that this prolonged feud is having on real people. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who understands politics and policy, said: “With this kind of anger, all the issues that impact New Yorkers are going to be affected. That’s the scary part.”

The fear is that the city, and the mayor's self-proclaimed progressive agenda, will be as badly wounded as the mayor himself.

However, a more careful examination of events indicates otherwise. If you view the Cuomo/de Blasio fight as a competition rather than a vendetta, then the political consequence of the battle between the two men is a significant lurch to the left. Progressive policies are the result, intended or unintended, of the bitter personal fight. 

The History

Cuomo set out to define himself by passing progressive measure such as marriage equality, gun control, reproductive rights and environmental regulations through a Republican-controlled Senate, setting benchmarks for progressive social policies unmatched among governors across America.

On economic policies, Cuomo was just as uncompromising, but from a more conservative perspective. He was U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan – a tax-cutting, budget-slashing, pro-corporate subsidy, anti-public sector union, austerity bulldozer, with political success equal to his social agenda.

De Blasio, on the other hand, emerged as mayor because he was the only candidate who built a campaign narrative that wove Bloomberg fatigue with the increasing unaffordability of the city. He took positions on tax policy and city unions that were once dismissed as too left leaning for voters and coasted to victory. Nor did he back off once elected, sticking with his agenda for better or worse and developing a national following as a governing liberal.

Both men hit the wall. Cuomo went into his re-election campaign with lots of dissatisfaction from the economic left, notably the Working Families Party. He was smacked around by the WFP, and relied on de Blasio to deliver their ballot line when the governor couldn't. In the subsequent Democratic primary and the general, Cuomo’s margins were way down.

De Blasio began to stumble over his image and a series of political missteps, including a combative relationship with the media. His relationship with Cuomo publicly collapsed, and the governor has repeatedly stepped into city issues to try and embarrass him. Anger and mutual dislike are where we stand today.

The Result

It's a compelling political story, especially for insiders. Personal rivalry, political ingratitude, teeth baring – all the things that make for good copy. Cuomo the winner, de Blasio the loser.

Not so fast.

Let’s look at the issues at the crux of the Cuomo-de Blasio rift: pre-K, homelessness, affordable housing, minimum wage, family leave, infrastructure, mass transit, higher education and more. These are all areas where progressives have been pushing for action, and now there is action aplenty, with money flying back and forth from the city and state, and each man pushing the other further to the left.

Progressive muscleman Bill Lipton of the Working Families Party agrees: “It's great to see the two most important politicians in the state competing to be the most progressive. Bill’s been there. Andrew learned a lot in the 2014 elections. The working people of the state are benefiting.”

The competition is working. New York is on track to have the highest minimum wage in America. New bridges, roads and tunnels are planned statewide. Universal pre-K is a real success. Family leave, homelessness and affordable housing will be the major talking points of the legislative session. Somewhere, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Norman Thomas and Mario Cuomo are smiling down on a city and state prioritizing compassion, generosity and economic fairness.

The Lesson

Cuomo and de Blasio can both take credit for the state’s leftward shift, but in different ways. Cuomo has pivoted on economic policy and shouldn't be criticized for learning his lesson – don't we want our leaders to learn and change? De Blasio has stuck with the ideological agenda that got him elected, even as he stumbles in the day-to-day whirlwind of Big Apple politics.

There's still plenty to worry about – we don't know how to pay for the litany of infrastructure proposals the governor has floated. Homelessness and affordable housing are intractable problems with no obvious practical solution. The economy remains marginal for poor and middle-income New Yorkers. Improvement in our public schools remains elusive.

But there is reason to believe that the progressive agenda will finally get a chance to show what it can do. De Blasio and Cuomo don't like each other and don't cooperate. But 40 years from now that will not count for much. If the next few years are marked by better housing, fewer mentally ill people on the streets, more disposable income for middle-class people, and new roads and bridges, the hostility will be forgotten and suddenly folks will pine for the good old days of de Blasio and Cuomo.

Richard Brodsky is a former assemblyman who is in the private practice of law and serves as a senior fellow at both Demos and NYU's Wagner School. He is a regular columnist for the Albany Times Union and The Huffington Post.