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What Makes ‘em Run? Or Not? Cuomo Could Shed Some Light

<i> Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer</i> .

Someday a potential candidate for President will decide not to run for the White House and, when others demand to know why, will simply say, “Because I don’t want to.”

Such a statement would not seem to befit a national political leader, or to satisfy those who wanted the man to run. But New York Gov. Mario Cuomo may have come close to it the other day when he made his “surprise” announcement that he will not be a candidate for President in 1988.

In a prepared statement read during a radio talk show, Cuomo said that he was not running because Democrats have other qualified candidates and that he can continue to do the things he wants to do as governor of New York. Asked to elaborate on his decision, Cuomo said, “It’s very, very difficult to elaborate on it.”

There are several elements of Cuomo’s decision and announcement that bear examining, because decisions of people not to run for President often have a tremendous bearing on the ultimate outcome.

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First there is the element of “surprise.” Were people surprised because Cuomo decided not to become a candidate? There already were clear signs that he would not run.

Was the surprise caused by the nature of his announcement, coming on a radio talk show rather than at a press conference? The use of the radio format should not have been that surprising. Cuomo is fond of communicating with his constituents through that medium.

Or was the timing a surprise because he had not announced in advance that he would make the announcement? Candidates preparing to announce their plans to run often engage in an elaborate pre-announcement buildup to heighten the suspense and attract attention. But it seems natural for someone who has decided not to run to want to get it over with quickly and simply.

Then there were frequent reports that Cuomo “agonized” over his decision. Well, why not? Deciding whether to run for President of the United States is not exactly like choosing whether to buy a white shirt or a blue one, particularly for a governor who bears a responsibility to the office that he holds. Think for a moment of the range of factors involved that would merely start with the effect on one’s family and personal life, the prospects for raising money and winding up with millions of dollars of debt, the odds on winning or losing, and the chances of being a successful President if one did win.

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On the other hand, a candidate who announces without the appearance of going through a certain amount of agony runs the risk of being branded as ambitious or presumptuous. One who too openly covets a higher office may be considered too ambitious.

Conversely, a candidate cannot be too modest. Apparent lack of ambition can be seen as failure to take the responsibility of public trust seriously enough, or lack of initiative, or just plain laziness.

Finally, there is the elaboration question.

Walter F. Mondale decided not to run in 1976 because he lacked “fire in the belly” and did not want to spend up to two years living in Holiday Inns. Certainly his decision was more elaborate than that, but the fire-in-the-belly shorthand finally was accepted. With it, however, went the unspoken conclusion by some that Mondale just didn’t have the courage to run, or perhaps that he did not have enough ambition.

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Leading up to the 1984 campaign, Mondale had to explain why he did not have fire in the belly in 1975, but did in 1983.

There is particular irony in the distress over Cuomo’s reluctance to elaborate on his decision, since he has perhaps gone to greater lengths than any other major American officeholder in explaining himself in public.

Following election to his first term, Cuomo published a diary of his campaign that described in great and fascinating detail virtually every decision that he made, beginning with the decision to run for governor. Rarely does the public ever get such insight into the thinking and emotions of a public official.

Ronald Reagan was the governor of California for eight years, ran four times for President and now has served more than six years as Chief Executive. Yet he has never explained in even the simplest of terms why he ran for office, save for the silly statement that candidates don’t decide to run, that the people make the decision for them.

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Someday Cuomo may publish another book in which he describes in minute detail the process by which he decided not to run for President in 1988. By then the issue may be a footnote in American political history. But Cuomo’s explanation may help solve the relative mystery of what makes candidates run, or not run.


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