Is a prohibitive Democratic frontrunner impervious to pressure from the Left?
Political swamis have puzzled over the question as they consider a bid for president by Hillary Clinton. Although Clinton leads other potential Democratic comers by as much or more than 50 percent in most polls, the conventional wisdom persists that her centrist platform could be susceptible to influence from the party's progressive wing during a primary.
Recently, another Democrat who might harbor presidential ambitions, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, found himself facing an analogous dynamic -- and his response could be an important test case in gauging the Left's sway.
Cuomo has, during his first term, honed his brand as a pragmatic dealmaker, working with a Republican-steered state Senate to legalize same-sex marriage and enact stricter gun laws, including other progressive policy priorities. At the same time, he has resisted the Left left on other pet issues, such as a push by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to allow the city to set its own minimum wage.
With their swagger renewed after de Blasio’s rise to power, some progressives in New York decided that Cuomo meeting them halfway wasn't enough. Under the banner of New York’s Working Families Party, they demanded concessions from the governor in return for endorsing his re-election, including that he help Democrats retake control of the Senate.
“It is very rare that any political body agrees with every position that an elected official holds,” Cuomo said as his negotiations with WFP were underway. “If that’s true, and it was total agreement, then somebody’s not thinking enough.”
De Blasio, despite being a current totem of progressive Democrats, agreed — and worked to broker a deal between WFP and Cuomo.
“They're both operatives at heart,” one Democratic strategist with ties to the Northeast said of de Blasio and Cuomo. “They both have a mindset that's somewhat atypical of people in their position that makes them very results-oriented, not ideologically rigid.”
The result was favorable to Cuomo, if tenuous: He agreed to push for a Democratic Senate while working toward policy changes including a higher minimum wage for New York City, and WFP offered its endorsement.
Just as few people believe a protest candidate on the Left could derail a presidential bid by Clinton, Cuomo was relatively safe from a genuine disruption to his re-election. But Cuomo this year seeks an air of inevitability, to borrow a term from Clintonworld — and he understood that, at this moment in political time, sniping from progressives could complicate matters for a centrist candidate intent on being the dominant force in the state's Democratic Party.
In spite of Clinton's commanding position among would-be Democratic presidential candidates, perhaps best likened to that of an incumbent, the former secretary of state's close allies remain wary of Cuomo and have watched closely as he has navigated his home-state minefield. The minutiae of New York state politics likely won't factor into a presidential contest, but Cuomo's stock among progressives could.
The Clintons received outsize attention when they threw their support, very publicly, behind de Blasio, and the gesture was interpreted by many people as a nod to the Left. But, in a move that received far less attention, Bill Clinton also endorsed Cuomo for re-election, in a video in May.
“At this point in my life, one of my great joys is seeing people I used to work with go on to do great things,” Clinton said of Cuomo, who served as HUD secretary during Clinton’s presidency.
The Clintons have worked both with Cuomo and de Blasio and, at turns, stood closer on the political spectrum to each.
In 2016, however, they and Cuomo might be more acutely pressured by activists to lean toward, or choose, a side.