Friday, January 2, 2015

Remembering Mario

I have to start this post the same way I started the last ... I haven't written for a LONG time ... too long in a lot of ways.

Sadness is one of those things that gets me writing and Mario Cuomo's passing is surely very, very sad for me. He was a brilliant and eloquent and good man. All three of those things are why he was so important to me. I looked up to him in all three dimensions.

Much is being written about Cuomo's life today and, to me, the most fulsome piece is from the New York Times and can be found here.

He was also a complicated man whose legacy is being debated today and that's what brings me to my post.

This morning, I read Andrei Cherny's discussion of Cuomo's Keynote Address for the Democratic National Convention and I just couldn't disagree more with Cherny's read of it (disagreement is another one of those things that gets me writing).

Cherny argues that, while the speech was well-crafted aesthetically, it sent the wrong message to Democrats and that the lasting memory of the speech has "contributed to the troubles of today’s Democratic party. Rather than a clarion call, it should be seen as a siren’s song — luring progressives into a course which crashes them against the rocks." The specific charge that Cherny levels is that the speech does not offer any forward-looking progressive proposals for action. Instead, he argues, Cuomo just offers a backward-looking vision of the great things the party did in the past; that it offers no vision for how the party needs to change.

Cherny is just wrong on several levels. The first and least important way in which he's wrong is that he's completely ignored or forgotten the context. This was a keynote speech and Cuomo was not (and never would be) the candidate. This was 1984 America in which Reagan conservatism was ascendant, even dominant. The job of the keynote speaker was to rally liberals and Democrats and remind them of their identity and philosophy and explain why, even when it seems like the majority of the country has a different view, liberals are right. Liberalism was at its nadir at this point, a point that Cuomo said in his speech was partly due to "the failure by some to separate the salesman from the product." He argued we needed a platform (see below why this is important) that unites the party. He said, "We need a platform we can all agree to so that we can sing out the truth for the nation to hear, in chorus, its logic so clear and commanding that no slick Madison Avenue commercial, no amount of geniality, no martial music will be able to muffle the sound of the truth." Cuomo's point was to get people to look past the charm and the smile and the charisma and to remind liberals that the they were selling the right product even if the other side temporarily had better packaging. And that brings me to my next point.

A more important way in which Cherny is wrong is that he complains that Cuomo does not offer anything forward-looking. This is a gross misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what Cuomo says in his speech. As Cherny himself points out, Cuomo ended the speech by imploring his audience to "Please, make this nation remember how futures are built." But Cherny interprets this as simply a wistful and longing nod to the good old days. To emphasize this point, Cherny relates the following anecdote:
After Cuomo’s triumph at the 1984 convention, Arkansas’ young governor Bill Clinton ran into his counterpart from Colorado, Dick Lamm. What did you think of Cuomo’s speech?” Clinton asked.

“Terrific,” Lamm replied. “It galvanized the crowd.”

“C’mon,” Clinton said. “What did it really say about the issues we’re trying to raise?”

“Nothing,” admitted Lamm. “Cuomo. Jesse Jackson. Teddy Kennedy. Same speech,” Lamm would say later. “Passionate statements of what used to be. We weren’t ready to face the issues of the future … so we celebrated the past."
I'm not sure who the "we" is in Bill Clinton's question about "the issue 'we're' trying to raise." He probably meant liberals though he could have meant the DLC. Either way, Bill Clinton, Dick Lamm, and Andrei Cherny are just wrong. Cuomo had plenty to say in that speech about the future and the policy agenda for liberals. There are many ways to lay out an agenda and one of the worst ways to do that is to provide all kinds of specific policy proposals - a lesson Bill Clinton never seemed to have learned as he subsequently gave one of the worst-conceived Convention speeches of all-time in 1988 and gave a series of truly awful and painfully-specific State of the Union addresses throughout his presidency.

My point is not to attack Bill Clinton (or Andrei Cherny for that matter) but simply to point out that, while the policy-prescription mode of campaigning for liberalism sure seems like a great idea among the intelligentsia of the Democratic Party, it is not what has ever or will ever actually connect average voters to liberalism. We can see this same argument playing out in recent years with regard to President Obama's Affordable Care Act and with his economic program. Some argue that President Obama has done a bad job of messaging on the health care law and on his economic performance generally because voters seem to have rejected these things in both 2010 and 2014. The problem with this argument (aside from ignoring what happened in 2012) is that no policy-specific speech ever interests voters. Ever. Full stop. It excites policy wonks and conservatives and liberals who read The Nation and the Economist and the National Review. If Ezra Klein is your audience, by all means, go with Clinton's speech writers. But the long-term prescription for the Democratic Party's success and for the success of a liberal, progressive policy agenda is to be true to the values of liberalism and to act (as President Obama has done with the Affordable Care Act, for instance) to put those values into action. That is what Cuomo's forward-looking prescription was in 1984. Measure us by what we do, not the slick packaging we use.

In short, the best response to Andrei Cherny's critique that Cuomo's 1984 speech had no forward-looking vision of how to adapt liberalism to the future is to ... quote Cuomo in his 1984 speech (my emphasis):
Now for 50 years -- for 50 years we Democrats created a better future for our children, using traditional Democratic principles as a fixed beacon, giving us direction and purpose, but constantly innovating, adapting to new realities: Roosevelt's alphabet programs; Truman's NATO and the GI Bill of Rights; Kennedy's intelligent tax incentives and the Alliance for Progress; Johnson's civil rights; Carter's human rights and the nearly miraculous Camp David Peace Accord.

Democrats did it -- Democrats did it and Democrats can do it again.
Summary: Stick to your values but adapt them to the new context you're in.

Mario Cuomo's speech (you can read or hear the whole thing here) is rightly remembered today as a galvanizing definition of what it means to be a liberal in America. More can be done to solve the Democratic Party's "troubles" today (such as they are) by re-listening to Cuomo's 1984 speech and by re-committing to those values than by some vague "clarion call" for a "new" Democratic Party.