The Myth of Andrew Cuomo’s Exceptionality
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged through his state, New York governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has received nothing but praise from the media and many political observers. He has been portrayed as a calm and competent executive, gracefully guiding his state through a crisis unlike anything it has contended with before, a stark contrast to President Trump’s denialism and immaturity. The media portrays his press conferences as a masterclass in communications, in which Cuomo frankly but calmly lays out the brutal extent of New York’s coronavirus outbreak while peppering the doom and gloom with personal anecdotes and understated humor. While there is something to be said for effective public communications, the rave reviews of Gov. Cuomo’s handling of the coronavirus are pure myths.
The true story of Gov. Cuomo’s response is a tale of pettiness, pompousness, inefficiency, and incompetence. Some of the most glaring inadequacies in New York’s coronavirus response have been due to the overlap of Gov. Cuomo’s and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s (D) administrations. The Governor has always had a role in New York City’s municipal politics, including, strangely, running the transit system, but the dynamic between Mayor DeBlasio and Gov. Cuomo has been particularly confrontational, and at times bizarre. In 2016, Gov. Cuomo intervened on behalf of a stray deer in Manhattan, questioning the New York City Parks Department’s choice to euthanize the animal once he took up residence in a Harlem housing project (he would not have survived being transported elsewhere, according to the Parks Department, but Cuomo begged to differ); the deer died regardless in his unsuitable habitat, a victim of the ensuing bureaucratic stalemate. The deer anecdote is perhaps as apt a metaphor as any for Gov. Cuomo’s botched response to the coronavirus: Bill DeBlasio was handling a situation with his characteristic semi-competence, Andrew Cuomo thought he knew better, and then tried to push the Mayor aside, causing an impasse, and thus, an outcome neither of them wanted. At every stage of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Cuomo has sought to sideline Mayor DeBlasio, placing only himself at the helm of New York’s response.
The blame for New York’s coronavirus response should lie more with Gov. Cuomo than Mayor DeBlasio because the Governor, for better or worse, took charge of the situation, belittling, obstructing, and upstaging the Mayor. Even before the pandemic, as illustrated by the Unfortunate Deer of Harlem, the Governor relished his power to undercut the Mayor’s agenda, repeatedly using backhanded political maneuvers to shoot down DeBlasio’s proposals. However, it came as a surprise even to those familiar with their petty feud that the coronavirus was not enough to prompt cooperation between the Governor and Mayor. When DeBlasio noticed that the burden of coronavirus cases had not been spread evenly amongst New York City’s hospitals, he attempted to activate a centralized agency to coordinate transfers of patients between hospitals. Gov. Cuomo, however, stood in his way, denying a reasonable and uncontroversial request which he might have accommodated but for his spite of the Mayor’s authority. Later in March, New York State set up its own system, giving Gov. Cuomo the political credit for having improved the inefficient system for hospital transfers that the Mayor had tried to address weeks before. Even facing an unprecedented crisis, the Governor was hellbent on optimizing the political optics of his every decision, putting the projection of his authority over the welfare of his citizens.
Cuomo’s most egregious pettiness came on April 11th, when he dismissed Mayor DeBlasio’s decision to keep public schools closed for the remainder of the school year as an “opinion,” denying DeBlasio jurisdiction over his own city. DeBlasio, similarly, has attempted to undercut the Governor, neglecting to inform him before he tried to impose a shelter in place order on March 17th. Again, the Governor dismissed the Mayor, insisting that “no city in the state can quarantine itself without state approval. And I have no interest whatsoever [in quarantining] any city.” After dismissing the Mayor’s actions yet again, the Governor replicated them less than a week later, ordering the state into lockdown on March 22nd. In the early stages of the pandemic, early and decisive action mattered; the five days that elapsed between Mayor DeBlasio and Governor Cuomo’s stay at home orders were critical, and earlier action could have saved thousands of lives, but Gov. Cuomo’s desire to undercut the Mayor yet again took precedence over the public interest.
Why is Gov. Cuomo the hero of this story, when he let his political insecurities interfere with his duty and was slow to take decisive action to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus? There are leaders who responded earlier and better, saving lives, but who have not received such praise as Gov. Cuomo, who has been the object of adoring murmurs that he might run for President in 2024. What about Mayor London Breed (D) of San Francisco, who responded early and adequately, averting a crisis. On February 25th, before a single case was reported in San Francisco, Mayor Breed declared an emergency and activated the city’s emergency response system, giving the local government broad leeway to make the necessary preparations for a coronavirus outbreak. She imposed a shelter in place order when San Francisco had only fifty virus cases, while Gov. Cuomo only capitulated to Mayor DeBlasio’s request for a shelter in place order when there were more than 10,000 cases in New York City. Because San Francisco responded swiftly and broadly, by early April, while New York City’s hospitals were inundated with COVID-19 cases, lacking adequate staff and equipment to treat them properly, there was an entire floor of St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, dedicated solely to COVID-19 patients, laying completely empty. The official data corroborates these contrasting anecdotes. At the time of print, there are 322 coronavirus cases for every hundred thousand residents in San Francisco, whereas Queens has 2,752, a per capita caseload nearly nine times more severe.
New York’s dire coronavirus outbreak could have been avoided with earlier action, better coordination, and more cooperation between Mayor DeBlasio and Gov. Cuomo. However, Gov. Cuomo has other theories for why New York was so hard-hit, none of them valid. He has suggested that New York’s density is to be blamed, but Hong Kong, the world’s densest city, and San Francisco, the country’s second-densest city, avoided severe outbreaks. If the severe outbreak in New York is somehow President Trump’s fault, as he has also posited, then why have other states managed the pandemic better? While there is some merit to the idea that President Trump could have done more to coordinate a national response, there is little merit to the Governor’s deflection of blame. It was clear from the onset of the pandemic that the responsibility of responding to it would be delegated to the individual states, a sensible proposition, given the different ways in which the crisis has manifested itself across different regions. For example, the stringent response that worked wonders in California was not warranted in Alaska due to the less severe situation there. Governors and Mayors, not Congress and the President, are leading us through this crisis, and that much has been clear all along. Never was there any ambiguity as to where the buck stops, but once his ineffective leadership resulted in tragedy, Gov. Cuomo insisted that it didn’t stop with him, despite his earlier attempts to unduly assume responsibility for the situation. Ultimately, if there is blame to place for New York’s predicament, it lies solely at Gov. Cuomo’s feet. It was he who hijacked control of the situation from the (only slightly) more competent and serious-minded Mayor DeBlasio, and then proceeded to mismanage the pandemic while blaming others for his own failures.
It is true that Gov. Cuomo’s press conferences serve an important role in educating the public about the evolving crisis, but they also serve another more cynical purpose: to paper over the Governor’s incompetent response to the coronavirus outbreak. Cuomo is a shrewd politician who is adept at negotiating and maneuvering his way through all that stands between him and his objective, be it a legislative goal or a personal ambition. That much has been true since long before the pandemic, and it will remain so. What is a novel cause for concern is the degree to which much of the news media has fallen for the catnip of Cuomo’s press conferences and let him off the hook for what matters, his mismanagement of an unprecedented crisis. It is the job of serious journalists to look beyond the facades of politicians like Cuomo, delving into the inconvenient truths that necessitate desperate public relations crusades such as his press conferences. It shouldn’t be this easy for those like Cuomo, who are master politicians but incompetent leaders, to avoid scrutiny of their shortcomings.
It is unfortunate that the people of New York keep electing politicians like Andrew Cuomo who know how to manipulate the tendencies of the news-as-entertainment sector, but the biggest tragedy is that the news media keeps falling for it. When CNN had Gov. Cuomo’s brother (a CNN anchor) give him a glowing interview, complete with sibling banter, they knew it would be great for their ratings, and they evidently didn’t mind the damage it did to their journalistic integrity. Gov. Cuomo knows how to pull at one’s heartstrings, making his constituents feel that they are safe under his protection and projecting a paternalistic attitude. The reality is that the exact opposite was and is true; Cuomo didn’t and doesn’t have the situation under control. Yet, many political observers and much of the news media bought into the fallacy that Cuomo was doing a good job, perpetuating the Stockholm Syndrome that has washed over New York’s political culture. Because of this total lack of critical thinking, Cuomo succeeded in convincing his constituents that they ought to be grateful for his heroic handling of the coronavirus when he had in fact failed miserably. It smacks of hypocrisy and sexism that the news media and political pundits laud Andrew Cuomo for his botched response to the coronavirus while ignoring London Breed’s decisive, humble, and effective leadership, a stark contrast to Cuomo’s early inaction and the grandstanding press conferences and shameless buck-passing with which he tried to compensate for his fundamental failure. Andrew Cuomo is no hero of the war against the coronavirus, and we should all be wary of falling for his cheap shots at President Trump, his distracting press conferences, and the myth that he had done anything besides what he always does: wrongfully take control of a high profile situation and then drop the ball.