For Democrats, There Is a Cuomo and an Anti-Cuomo (Clinton) : Campaign: This election might finally decide the party’s 25-year long struggle between the New Politics and the Old Politics.

<i> William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion</i>

It’s Cuomo versus Clinton. That’s the conventional wisdom about the way the 1992 Democratic presidential campaign is shaping up. What’s odd is that New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo hasn’t even gotten into the race yet. And Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton is still down in the single digits in Democratic polls.

No matter. Cuomo has gotten more press from his public agonizing over whether to run than the other candidates have gotten by entering the race. Now that Cuomo has started to put together a campaign organization, inside dopesters have concluded he will run. After all this fuss, he will look like a jerk if he doesn’t.

If there is a Cuomo, there is certain to be an anti-Cuomo. The most likely candidate is Clinton. His speeches and policy statements have made a strong positive impression on party leaders. He’s a Southerner, and many Southern Democrats don’t want to see Cuomo at the top of the ticket. “I suspect there are a lot of Democrats who are really gun-shy about Democratic governors from the Northeast,” the Texas Democratic chairman said recently. “The last adventure we had on that was not fun.”

A Cuomo-Clinton race sounds plausible because it corresponds to a factional split in the Democratic Party that has been going on for almost a quarter of a century--the New Politics vs. the Old Politics. It started out with Eugene McCarthy against Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968. The issue was the Vietnam War. In 1984, the fight was between Gary Hart and Walter F. Mondale. The issue was “new ideas.” Next year it may well be Cuomo versus Clinton. The issue will be how to fix the nation’s economy.


The New Politics draws its support from younger and more upscale Democrats. They tend to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. They don’t want to hear partisan rhetoric. They want technocratic solutions. The Old Politics is more populist and partisan. It appeals to older and less prosperous voters who want Democrats to do what they have always promised--protect and provide.

New Politics voters used to be the left wing of the Democratic Party. That was when the party was tearing itself apart over race and Vietnam. Young voters and prosperous suburban voters did not become Democrats because of economic resentment. They were drawn to the party’s liberal social values and to the new breed of Democrats who expressed them--McCarthy, George McGovern, Morris Udall, Edward M. Kennedy.

In the 1970s, however, the agenda shifted from social issues to economic issues. The debate in the Democratic Party shifted, too. Now the Old Politics Democrats were on the left. They supported Mondale’s interest-group liberalism. As hippies turned into yuppies, New Politics Democrats went for Hart’s “new ideas.” It was never clear what the new ideas were. They seemed to involve things like management, investment and competitiveness.

But everyone knew what the old ideas were--taxing, spending and big government. Upscale Democrats found those ideas threatening. Young Democrats found those ideas old-fashioned and boring. On the other hand, Old Politics Democrats found Hart’s new ideas empty. Mondale demolished them in one stroke, when he asked, “Where’s the beef?”


The debate ended in a draw. The Old Politics won in 1984, when the party nominated Mondale. He turned out to be a disaster. The New Politics won in 1988, when the party nominated Michael S. Dukakis, the ultimate manager. Another disaster.

Democrats on both sides argued that 1984 and 1988 were not fair tests. Mondale and Dukakis were terrible candidates. Since the economy was in good shape both years, the Democrats never had a chance. With the economy now in recession, both sides are eager for another shot.

Old Politics Democrats are hurting. They are looking for someone to express their anger and pain. They want to hear a populist economic message, one that calls for “fairness” in retribution for 10 years of trickle-down economics. No one can rouse their blood better than Cuomo.

New Politics Democrats are worried about the future. They want someone who has a credible economic-growth program--a plan to make the economic pie grow, not just to slice it up more fairly. So far, Clinton has had the most interesting new ideas. He wants government to provide greater opportunity. So he has called for a guaranteed college-loan program. He also wants individuals to assume more personal responsibility. So he advocates welfare reform.


But it is unfair to call Clinton a conservative. He told party leaders, “I’m a Democrat by heritage, instinct and conviction” and attacked the “greed, selfishness, irresponsibility, excess and neglect” of the Reagan-Bush era. The young Clinton chaired McGovern’s 1972 campaign in Arkansas, probably the most thankless task in recent political history. He nominated Dukakis, at great length, at the 1988 Democratic convention.

That puts Clinton squarely in the New Politics tradition. As does the fact that he calls on Democrats to abandon the “tax-and-spend” policies of the past. And criticizes congressional Democrats for contributing to the mismanagement of the economy during the 1980s.

It’s also unfair to characterize Cuomo as an old-fashioned New Deal liberal. As governor, Cuomo’s spending cuts have been more radical and more controversial than his tax increases. Moreover, like any good New Politics liberal, Cuomo has his own “investment-led economic growth strategy” for the U.S., including a targeted capital-gains tax cut for long-term investments.

What turns Old Politics Democrats on is Cuomo’s rhetoric, not his record. Cuomo articulates their most cherished values: sharing, family, compassion and fairness. They were thrilled by his 1984 keynote speech about the “two cities,” including the one Ronald Reagan did not see.


Cuomo’s story is the immigrant saga. He is a tough, combative partisan who shows disdain for George Bush’s weak leadership style. On issues like abortion and the death penalty, Cuomo’s positions may be no different from those of McGovern and Dukakis. But his religious and moral values are traditional.

The point is not that Cuomo and Clinton are simply “types.” It is that constituencies are out there waiting to be led. And the likelihood is that they will see what they want in Cuomo and Clinton. And we will be able to see it in the exit polls.

Cuomo will do best among older, poorer, more partisan Democrats. That’s the Old Politics constituency. Clinton will build a lead among younger, more prosperous, Independent voters. That’s the New Politics group. The result could be the final showdown over who has proprietary rights to the Democratic Party.

But will it be worth anything? Republicans claim it doesn’t make a bit of difference which side wins the primaries. Both Cuomo and Clinton are governors, and governors are in trouble right now. The Gallup Poll reports that, while Bush has a 52% approval rating, only 42% of Americans say they approve of the job their governor is doing. Governors are paying the price for this year’s record state tax increases. To most voters, the governors are not part of the solution. They’re part of the problem.


Moreover, both Cuomo and Clinton are liberal on social issues, and the Republicans fully expect to do to them what they did to Dukakis in 1988.

But neither Cuomo nor Clinton is a limousine liberal. Clinton is a white Southerner and Cuomo is an urban ethnic with strong working-class roots. Cuomo and Clinton have to do what Dukakis did not--define their values before the GOP does it for them. Cuomo surely remembers the first time he ran for governor in 1982. He almost lost because he opposed the death penalty. Many voters were unfamiliar with him, and they thought he was too liberal--for New York!

Cuomo and Clinton have one other thing in common. They have no foreign-policy experience. That could be their undoing. Anything that makes foreign policy a prominent issue in the campaign will play to Bush’s strength. How about this scenario: The Soviet Union collapses, and the situation degenerates into civil war. With nuclear weapons. That would be bad news for the world. It would be even worse news for the Democratic Party.