PHILADELPHIA — In Mario Cuomo’s masterful address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, the three-term governor of New York closed with the story of his father. It was the experience of an immigrant working such long hours at a grocery store on the wrong side of the tracks that his feet bled.
In his own speech at this year’s DNC in Philadelphia, still mourning the death of his father last January, the current New York governor also channeled his father’s life’s work and memory.
Andrew M. Cuomo did not reach the heights of his father’s lofty rhetoric or expertly modulated oratory, but his aim was the same — rebutting the appeal of an out-of-touch opponent in comparison to the helping hand that has been the historic calling card of the Democratic Party.
“The greatest feast is the one that is enjoyed by the most people at the table,” Cuomo said Thursday in one of his better lines of the mostly shouted speech.
He spent much of his allotted time bluntly picking at the anti-immigrant argument of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
The elder Cuomo’s address in 1984 was a powerful piece of rhetoric. With crisp, specific phrasing and lyrical examples he managed to show contempt for President Ronald Reagan’s idea (via John Winthrop) of America as a “shining city on a hill.” In Cuomo’s estimation, there were too many Americans still struggling, too many places where the light didn’t reach. And Reagan couldn’t see it “from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well.”
The speech launched Cuomo’s national reputation and inspired a generation of speechwriters and politicians.
It was a forceful, emotional argument for left-leaning, New Deal principles that rallied the troops in the arena. Yet that year’s presidential ticket lost drastically in the fall, and the Democratic Party abandoned this vision of liberalism for the (Bill) Clinton revolution, which tutored the younger Cuomo, too.
Now, Hillary Clinton is back, as is the younger Cuomo, and both are channeling new-old progressive bona fides, positioning their earlier pragmatic centrism as the philosophy of progressives who get things done.
Cuomo spoke Thursday of some of those accomplishments: paid family leave, marriage equality, banning fracking, raising the minimum wage.
Yet many of them were progressive battles the governor had only recently embraced. And he was not able to reach for, or was too time-constrained to include, the kind of precise pictures of how Americans are struggling and how his policies can help them.
Revisiting the 1984 speech, it’s striking how many of the problems Mario spoke of are still with us today. There is still poverty in Appalachia and homelessness in Chicago, which the elder Cuomo portrayed so eloquently. But the rhetoric of the elder Cuomo didn’t fix it, nor did the Democratic pragmatism that came later. Which meant that the most compelling argument Cuomo could make was to paint a dark picture of the alternative: a Republican candidate who dwells in fear.