Channeling Roosevelt

Focusing on New York could help Cuomo's presidential hopes.

(David Duprey/AP)

Cuomo's 'technical difficulty' isn't all that difficult.

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We have a technical difficulty” was the response New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave to Fox Business Network host Maria Bartiromo when she asked about his 2016 presidential aspirations. Rarely has a politician been so forthright.

With former New York Sen. and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comfortably situated as an almost unassailable frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, there’s no doubt Cuomo’s experiencing “technical difficulty.” From raising money to traveling to Iowa and giving national media interviews to boost his name recognition, Cuomo’s opportunities are limited. He can only venture out so far into the arena before he invites questions from the Clinton camp.

But as political scientist Kenneth Shepsle has explained, “Clever politicians do not take the political world as they find it … they engage in search behavior … [to locate] some new way to accomplish what is blocked by existing ways of doing things.”

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Cuomo appears to have discovered the model offered by one of his predecessors, Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose central principle in 1930 was all New York, all the time.

That’s what Cuomo is doing. From a defense of charter schools to stricter gun laws to a reduction in property taxes, like Roosevelt, Cuomo is focused on providing policy solutions to the many diverse constituencies across his state. In sum, he’s looking to demonstrate governance, rather than talk about being a governor. He also knows that should he put up a solid win in 2014, he’ll be in the national presidential conversation whether the Clintons want him there or not.

And Cuomo is smart to look back to Roosevelt. Like him, Cuomo first won the Empire State’s executive office in what was a tough year for Democrats. In 2010, Republicans won 63 seats in the House, six in the Senate, and 23 of the 37 gubernatorial races. In 1928, when Roosevelt first ran, Republicans gained 32 seats in the House, eight seats in the Senate, and 24 of the 35 gubernatorial contests.

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Further, Roosevelt managed to win re-election one full year into the Great Depression. There was no incumbent in the country whose constituents were more negatively affected, and yet Roosevelt managed to convince New Yorkers in 1930 that he was not only working hard to stem the crisis and mitigate their suffering, but that he was working exclusively for them – not Tammany Hall and not big business. In short, the New Deal began in New York. And it propelled Roosevelt to the largest majority of any gubernatorial candidate in that state to that date. It also turned him into the central contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932.

No surprise then that as 2014 is shaping up to be not only a difficult year for incumbents, but one for Democrats in particular, Cuomo is looking to Roosevelt for inspiration. Not only does it allow him to stay out of the Washington conversation this year, but it affords him a political edge over Clinton, who will, by virtue of her past service in the Obama administration, be tied to the president’s approval rating in 2016. In essence, Cuomo’s New York focus provides him the opportunity to be both “an outsider” and “a fresh face” when the national spotlight turns to the presidential contest next year.

Doesn’t look like his technical difficulties are so great after all.