What the ‘Cuomo 2020’ Fantasy Says About 2020 Reality

His is a new coalition, couch-bound and spooked, finding small comforts where few had sought sustenance before: in the tender embrace of a disaster briefing by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Fans share text messages about the accent — the Queens English, brusque but empathetic — and the cable-news group therapy of his slide show presentations, their pick-me-ups rendered with the force of executive orders. (“Find Ways To: Create Some JOY,” one caption instructed on Sunday.)

They daydream about Mr. Cuomo’s job prospects — Might he join a Biden administration? Might there be a Cuomo administration, somehow? — and indulge in mischievous embroidery.

“I’m always trying to keep up with what’s happening in the zeitgeist,” said Rachelle Hruska MacPherson, the founder of a cashmere sweater company, Lingua Franca, which now counts a $285 “cuomo for president” piece among its hottest sellers, with dozens of buyers already from as far as Texas, Montana and New South Wales, Australia.

On Monday, Mr. Cuomo reiterated that he would be disappointing them. “I’m not running for president,” he told reporters at his latest coronavirus update.

But with the man who is running (and leading the Democratic contest), Joseph R. Biden Jr., functionally confined to campaigning from his Delaware home, Mr. Cuomo has become the politician of the moment, held up as the man in command with his state under siege.

More respected than revered over much of his nine-year tenure as governor, never seeing a clean path to a White House promotion he has long been said to covet, Mr. Cuomo now finds himself with a national audience, even as local supporters and critics agree he is much the same as he always was.

“If you’re feeling disoriented, it’s not you,” Mr. Cuomo said over the weekend, speaking generally. “It’s everyone.”

And it is yielding surreal political consequences.

“I keep hearing, ‘Cuomo for President,’” said Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the New York State Democratic Party and a superdelegate to the national convention. “Whether it’s political people that talk to me; or neighbors on the street; or friends I haven’t heard from in a long time; my brother down in Marietta, Ga., texting me; my sister-in-law — it’s off the charts.”

Here it is important to distinguish wish-casting from reality, as reinforced in conversations with Cuomo allies and party officials like Mr. Jacobs. “Joe Biden is going to be our nominee,” he said.

Instead, the Cuomo flirtation, such as it is, seems most instructive for what it says about those drawn to it, reviving a persistent trope among Trump-era Democrats: the romanticizing of prospective party saviors, even at this point in the nominating calendar, a vice that has yielded all manner of campaign fantasies in recent history.

Maybe Oprah Winfrey would be the one. (She was not interested.) Or Beto O’Rourke. (The electorate was not interested.) Or Michael R. Bloomberg. (Only American Samoa was interested.)

Mr. Cuomo effectively endorsed Mr. Biden, with whom he is close, before the former vice president entered the race, and Mr. Biden remains the heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination, with a significant delegate lead over Senator Bernie Sanders.

No one in a position of relevant authority has said publicly that Mr. Cuomo, a noncandidate with a generational governing challenge on his hands, should be introduced to the mix or elevated in any far-fetched brokered convention scenario. (This did not stop President Trump on Monday from boosting Mr. Cuomo to taunt Mr. Biden, telling Fox News that the governor would be “a better candidate than Sleepy Joe.”)

There is reason to doubt that Mr. Cuomo will end up in Washington at all, even if Mr. Biden reaches the White House. Mr. Biden has pledged to pick a woman as his running mate, and Mr. Cuomo says he does not want the job. The possibility of him being drafted regardless, of electoral circumstances changing drastically enough in the coming months to spur a reversal of that pledge and Mr. Cuomo’s protestations, is remote. No one in the Biden camp has indicated that this is under consideration.

Still, with Mr. Biden often straining to break through in recent weeks, Democrats absorbing the brash monologues and score-settling of Mr. Trump are plainly eager for any steady-handed fact-slinging from those on the front lines of the virus response.

Pete Souza, the former White House photographer for Barack Obama, shared an old photograph on Instagram on Friday of Mr. Obama with Mr. Cuomo. “A former President with the current acting President,” Mr. Souza wrote. The image has been “liked” more than 240,000 times.

Mr. Biden, left to conduct live-streams and remote television interviews from home, is conscious of his current limitations. “Thanks for giving me the time,” he said at the end of an MSNBC appearance on Monday, “so they don’t wonder where I am.”

He has also been quick to praise Mr. Cuomo. “I think he is doing a hell of a job,” Mr. Biden said on MSNBC last week. “I think he has been the lead horse here.”

If crises tend to amplify and accentuate the most essential tics and instincts of elected leaders, Mr. Cuomo’s reputation for inveterate micromanagement and swaggering protectiveness appears to be serving him well in his televised ubiquity. In public sessions, Mr. Cuomo has long evoked a father who greets his daughter’s prom date with a vise-grip handshake and an overlong stare — then chaperones the dance anyway, just in case. Now, he has a virus to eye warily.

Those appraising Mr. Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic tend to sort themselves into three camps: admirers, new and old, disinclined to miss his daily appearances; longtime skeptics conceding grudging recognition for his triumphs of tone; and other opponents, particularly among progressive activists in New York City, warning that he is still not to be trusted.

All three groups allow that they did not expect to encounter a Cuomo boom cycle this year. A Siena College poll of New Yorkers, released on Monday, found Mr. Cuomo with a 71 percent favorability rating, his best showing in seven years and a 27-point spike from February. Eighty-seven percent of respondents approved of his performance in the crisis.

“Imagine if you told me a few years ago,” tweeted Amy Spitalnick, a former aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio who tussled often with the governor’s operation while at City Hall, “that I’d look forward to watching a Cuomo press conference every day.”

In an interview, Ms. Spitalnick suggested that if Mr. Cuomo had not exactly changed, the circumstances had. “He’s still the guy from Queens,” she said, contrasting him with Mr. Trump, another native of the borough. “He’s being straightforward and direct about what New York needs. The other guy from Queens is not providing that.”

Some past adversaries have been less charitable, urging new converts not to be persuaded. They say that while Mr. Cuomo’s news conferences might be well calibrated, New York could have done more earlier in the month to protect its citizens, noting that officials in states like California and Ohio seemed to act more decisively at times.

While Mr. de Blasio has been faulted for mischaracterizing the threat in several past comments, Mr. Cuomo bristled at the mayor’s initial reference to a possible “shelter-in-place” order for the city about two weeks ago, arguing that panic could be “a bigger problem than the virus” if people felt trapped at home. Mr. Cuomo did direct the closing of nonessential workplaces and tell residents to stay home as much as possible.

“You’re trying to balance this,” he told reporters on Sunday, when asked why the state had not moved more quickly, adding, “I think we were one of the first to shut it down.”

Since then, activists have faulted Mr. Cuomo for not doing more to accommodate vulnerable prison populations, pushing for a wider-scale inmate release beyond a decision to remove certain parole violators from the jails.

Several Democrats have also accused Mr. Cuomo of not offering sufficient assistance to tenants, calling for the outright cancellation of rent in the near term. (Mr. Cuomo has announced an order waiving mortgage payments for three months for affected homeowners, while issuing a 90-day moratorium on evictions.)

With the state budget in flux, some progressives have shown particular frustration with Mr. Cuomo’s aversion to higher taxes on the rich, which the governor has said would do more harm than good to the fragile economy. Even before the virus hit, Mr. Cuomo revealed plans to seek billions in savings from Medicaid spending.

“A lot of people are seeing Cuomo for the first time,” said Jonathan Westin, the director of New York Communities for Change, an advocacy group. “In the longer term, I think people will see through Cuomo’s veiled attempt to position himself as an everyman.”

The debate has played out in forums unaccustomed to disputes over financial forecasting in Albany. Comments on an Instagram post promoting the Cuomo-branded cashmere sweater appeared to pit come-lately cheerleaders against others who claimed more familiarity with his history.

“Corporate Democrat,” one account labeled him, responding to the “cuomo for president” message.

“YOU BETTER MEAN RIVERS,” wrote another. (That would be Rivers Cuomo, of the band Weezer.)

But on his own Twitter profile, the singer — more puckish than politically inclined on social media — has taken to identifying himself by another name now:

“Gov. Cuomo.”

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