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Andrew Cuomo’s smooth ride as New York’s governor – high approval numbers, flattering newspaper coverage, little by way of fierce opposition – has suddenly hit a rough patch.
Much of it is in the form of a single, towering figure: Hillary Clinton. Gone from Washington, she has returned to Cuomo’s backyard, freezing his perceived 2016 presidential hopes as she begins the long process of deciding whether to run herself.
Meanwhile, generally positive media coverage of the governor has turned sour in recent weeks, with stories that reinforce criticism that Cuomo is too controlling and either insufficiently liberal or trying too hard to placate his skeptics on the left.
It adds up to a serious test of political skills and discipline for Cuomo, who makes every short list of likely Democratic contenders in 2016
And one of the biggest challenges is how to deal with the omnipresence of Hillary.
Few New York Democrats will discuss the Clinton-Cuomo dynamic on the record – lest they antagonize either powerful pol – but it has dominated private conversations for months. Often described as controlling herself, Clinton creates the air of unpredictability for everyone else with 2016 possibly in their sights — especially her fellow New Yorker.
“It’s really a crazy situation,” said one Cuomo supporter, referring to Clinton. “He’s totally trapped by her.”
Every move Cuomo makes, this person said, is seen as aimed at either furthering his 2016 ambitions or to countering Clinton in some way. Further complicating matters for Cuomo is the fact that his donor base overlaps significantly with Clinton’s (though his ability to raise money isn’t in doubt).
“He is going to have to position himself in a real way for 2016 if he’s planning to run,” the supporter added.
There are many other potential land mines for Cuomo now – including national media scrutiny that comes with the expectation that he wants to run for president. A story about Cuomo’s top aide taking to a radio station to lambaste a fired state worker by quoting from his personnel file ricocheted around Twitter on Friday.
With much of his future currently out of Cuomo’s direct control, the question is how focused he can stay on the task at hand.
“Andrew, like just about every politician on earth, has at times allowed some of the distractions to get his attention,” said Democratic strategist Jonathan Prince, who worked with Cuomo briefly on his first, failed gubernatorial run. “But the story of his race for attorney general through his race for governor, and including the last few years of his governorship, has been one of real focus and discipline. He’s got to maintain that.
“The challenge for any politician who is facing a series of external events that have the ability to shape his or her future is to remain focused and disciplined on the events and issues that he or she can effect,” Prince added.
Hillary Clinton is both the wife of the man Cuomo considers his political mentor, and the woman who every prospective 2016 hopeful gets asked about, almost immediately, in every interview. (Bill Clinton gave Cuomo his first major launchpad as U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the 1990s).
The best thing Cuomo can do, said Manhattan Institute scholar Fred Siegel, is “forget about 2016” and focus on improving New York state’s economy.
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