Can another Cuomo win over America?

Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Errol Louis: Mario Cuomo's death a reminder of when a strong liberal mulled presidential run

He says Cuomo's son, N.Y.'s governor, also eyes presidency. Can liberalism make comeback?

CNN  — 

As if scripted by Hollywood, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo’s death on New Year’s Day came just hours after his son, Andrew, was sworn in to a second term in the same office. It was a storybook ending to a larger than life career and personality that raised enduring questions about whether Cuomo’s style of big-hearted, big-state liberalism can win the White House.

Mario Cuomo was famous for the idealism he expressed in soaring oratory, but he had a prickly practical side as well. Cuomo, the political infighter, was famously combative: He frequently picked fights with the press and had a contentious relationship with the state legislature that included comparing them to clapping monkeys in one address. In 1977, Cuomo famously ran three races for New York mayor against Ed Koch in a single year, a bitter string of campaigns that included a scurrilous flier suggesting Koch was gay (Koch denied this until his death; Cuomo denied any knowledge of the flier).

Cuomo lost all three contests, but bounced back to defeat Koch in the 1982 race for governor. That’s when Cuomo began to tantalize his fellow Democrats, many of whom wanted him to lead a liberal counterattack on the conservative Republican philosophy embodied by President Ronald Reagan.

An electrifying speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention sent Cuomo to the front ranks of Democratic candidates – and in 1991, a plane famously idled at a local airport, waiting for a go-ahead to rush paperwork to New Hampshire that would have enrolled him in the 1992 presidential primary.

In the end, after extended deliberations that earned him the nickname “Hamlet on the Hudson,” Cuomo opted not to run for president, and in 1993 he turned down an all-but-engraved invitation by President Clinton to accept a nomination to the Supreme Court.

The consensus among New York’s political class is that Cuomo avoided the national stage due to personal doubts and hesitations; As one observer put it, “Cuomo simply did not trust enough people to build the kind of staff needed to run an effective national campaign.”

But the question remains: Would America have been ready to elect an unabashed liberal? And is the country ready to do so now? At a time when income inequality has far surpassed even the startling differences of the 1980s, liberalism shows signs of revival. After 20 years of electing Republican mayors, New York City voters in 2013 chose Bill de Blasio, whose promise to close the gap between rich and poor was embodied in a line – a “tale of two cities” – taken directly from Cuomo’s 1984 speech.

Cuomo’s son, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, used his inaugural speech to focus on national issues: He included talk of raising the minimum wage and boasts about being the first big state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage and implement tough restrictions on gun ownership.

Andrew Cuomo said his father, on what turned out to be his deathbed, had reviewed the speech. “He said it was a good speech,” Andrew said.

A hint, perhaps, of things to come.

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