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For Cuomo, It's Time to Ride to Party's Rescue

November 19, 1987|JACK BEATTY | Jack Beatty is a senior editor of the Atlantic Monthly .

All over America, Democrats are waiting for Mario.

Almost palpably, the conviction is growing that the New York governor must get into the race to save the party from defeat. The Cuomo fever is being fed partly by the governor's orchestrated ambivalence over whether he likes Michael Dukakis this week or Paul Simon, and partly by the lackluster Democratic candidates, with whom more than half of Democratic voters are dissatisfied, according to the polls. Contrast this to the 18% who felt that way about the declared candidates at this stage of the 1984 race. Coming out of the Reagan years, Democrats apparently crave a candidate as emotionally satisfying to them as Ronald Reagan has been to Republicans.

No doubt this is an irrational wish. But politics is not just about interests; it's about dreams and hopes, the high ground of political myth that Mario Cuomo made his own in his keynote address to the Democratic convention in 1984. No other candidate occupies that ground today, and Democrats are afraid that unless they are fired up by a nominee, he will lose. They want someone they can believe in, and they want a winner. Cuomo is the one.

A second reason for Democratic pessimism about '88 is the surprising account that George Bush gave of himself in the recent debate among the Republican candidates. "The gentleman twit," as he has been called, displayed a hitherto unsuspected gravitas , as if after years of reciting his impressive resume, he had finally started to believe it. Suddenly it dawned on Democrats that Bush, the likeliest GOP nominee, could be formidable.

Then there are the issues--or rather, the lack of them. Unless the economy goes into a recession, there may be few issues left for the Democrats to run on. With the Arias peace plan making progress in Nicaragua, the Contra war could be removed as an issue. Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev may follow up their agreement to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles with a historic 50% reduction in the strategic arsenals, a move that could make the world safer than it has been at any time since the Soviets reached nuclear parity with the United States. That takes care of peace.

And prosperity? Well, consumer spending was not sharply down in October despite Black Monday. If that pattern persists, fears that the stock market crash would lead to a recession may prove groundless. Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan S. Greenspan have decided to let the dollar and interest rates fall, which is good news for the Republican candidate next year. Even Congress, if it completes a bipartisan deficit-reduction agreement, may help to restore economic confidence. Black Monday, the feeling is growing, may have come a year too early for the Democrats.

If there is peace and prosperity next year, why should the people vote for change? That's why the Democrats need Mario Cuomo and the politics of charisma: to give people a reason to vote for change--the same one they had in 1960, the last time an "open" seat was up for grabs. Picture Cuomo in a television debate with George Bush and you'd know he'd come out the winner--on points, on style, on sheer strength of character and intellect. With issues playing a secondary role or even favoring the Republicans, that may be the Democrats' only hope.

Cuomo has as late as Feb. 25 to file as a favorite son candidate in the April 19 New York primary. Will he come in then, or will he wait until the race has Balkanized among a group of favorite son candidates (Simon in Iowa and Illinois; Dukakis in New Hampshire; Albert Gore and Jesse Jackson in the South) who are unable to win beyond their bases?

An observer of New York politics, monitoring Cuomo's Delphic statements, compares Cuomo to a man waiting for lightning to strike; a man, he added, standing outside in the rain, holding a key, and carrying a lightning rod.

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