Lessons from New York State

Recent events in New York State have produced a primer on how not to handle the politics of extremism.  They've produced three lessons worth learning.

First, Governor Cuomo (D-N.Y.) spoke clumsily on extremism.  On a recent radio program the governor stated,  “Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay?  Is that who they are?  Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the State of New York.”

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If Governor Cuomo said only that, he would deserve all the ridicule those remarks are receiving.  No governor should divisively show people the door.

Cuomo has pointed to additional comments in that same interview, where he said it was “fine” to be against gay marriage, gun control and abortion.  This controversy becomes less controversial when the rest of what the governor said is acknowledged.  Therefore, Cuomo maintains that he was actually criticizing candidates who would inject hate into those volatile issues, not those who disagree with his views.

Given that factual clarification and that close to two thirds of New York voters agree with Cuomo’s on choice, gay marriage and gun control, his rhetorical slip may exact a limited political penalty.  Nevertheless, Cuomo has learned a hard lesson on the ­­­­need to say what you mean with precision, so that what voters hear is what you actually mean.

Meanwhile, the Republicans’ favored candidate to oppose Cuomo, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, also slipped on the banana peel in responding to Cuomo.  Astorino said Cuomo was using abortion as a “straw man.” 

Astorino also inaccurately labelled the Cuomo proposal to codify Roe v. Wade in state law, as an attempt to legalize abortion on demand.  Astorino’s comments may have turned off the over 70 percent of New York voters, who polls consistently show support this codification of Roe v. Wade.

Astorino is to be respected for his deeply held pro-life views.  But having played the Catholic card in his retort to Cuomo, Astorino missed a great opportunity last December, standing silent, when Rush Limbaugh accused the Pope of spouting “pure Marxism.”

Which bring us to the second lesson - if a candidate is going to preach against the politics of division, criticize violations by your allies, not just your political adversaries.  Just imagine Astorino’s enhanced credibility to attack Cuomo this month, had he just taken on Limbaugh’s tirade against the Pope last month (a Sister Souljah moment).

Which brings us to the third lesson - the revenge of the moderates.  On January 10, a Gallup survey showed the changing ideological balance in the nation’s electorate.  From 1992-2011 there were roughly twice as many Americans who described themselves as conservatives than as liberals, while just under 40 percent called themselves moderates.  This ratio was the foundation of the correct description of America as a center-right nation politically.

From 1992 to today, Gallup’s data shows that conservatives declined from 43 to 38 percent of the nation; moderates nudged down slightly from 36 to 34 percent; while the liberal share increased from 17 to 23 percent.

Today’s ideological breakdown does not put liberals in the driver’s seat, but if current trends continue, America will soon become a vital center nation ideologically.  That potential is underscored by Gallup’s January 8 data, revealing that self-described independents are now at 42 percent of the nation – a high water mark.

Consequently, moderate independents could grow to a full fifth of the overall electorate (if independents grow to 45 percent of the electorate, given that over 40 percent of independents are moderates).  Moderate independents may emerge with little patience for political extremism on either side, while their votes will certainly determine who wins and who loses elections.

Thus, candidates would be wise to say exactly what they mean, while seeking Sister Souljah moments (critiquing allies, as well as adversaries, along the third rail of extremism), if they want to avoid the full force of a Thor’s hammer strike by these moderate voters.

Gyory is a political consultant andan adjunct professor at the University of Albany.