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Nixon and the Machine

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(The following post is by our very own Murc, with very minor edits by yours truly. Enjoy!)

Cynthia Nixon’s loss yesterday wasn’t absolutely foreordained, but the writing had been on the wall almost since she declared; Nixon had never been closer to Cuomo than thirty points (which is what she lost by, 65-35) and at times slipped to as much as forty down.

After generating a lot of buzz and attention this spring when she announced, coverage and polling on this race basically shut down for about two, two and a half months; there was a long string of Cuomo +30 (or more) polls in May and June, and then the pollsters and the media decided “yeah… we’ll see you in August, guys.” Absent FDR, Fiorello LaGuardia, and Mario Cuomo his own self rising from the grave to endorse her down the stretch, that was the ball game.

So let’s talk about the Nixon campaign, what it hoped to achieve, what it DID achieve, and what the likely consequences are going forward.

This was no vanity or issues-awareness campaign; whatever you think of her qualifications, ideology, policy proposals, or political strategy, Cynthia Nixon was very clearly in this to win it; she wanted a victory and ran a race whose focus was on winning, not merely keeping Cuomo “honest” or highlighting issues important to her. By that metric, she has unfortunately failed.

There are a lot of reasons for this. New York is a heavily machine-oriented state on both sides of the aisle and has been since time immemorial. Andrew Cuomo is a master of working this machine; he has an almost-instinctive understanding of how to pull its levers to get the results he wants and how far it can be pushed before something in it goes “sproing.” New York politics are littered with the corpses of those who weren’t as good at that as they thought they were; Shelly Silver has a high likelihood of dying in prison because he thought he was in control of the machine right up to the moment something went “sproing,” and Joe Bruno only narrowly escaped the same fate.

You can only really internally (as in, intra-party) dislodge an incumbent in this state who isn’t being weighed down by scandal in two ways. The first is by activating a coalition distinct from theirs with sufficient clout to unseat them; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did this when she took down Joe Crowley, whose district had changed out from under him without him really noticing. The second is by convincing enough members of their existing coalition that they are being poorly served by the incumbent and that they should take a chance on you.

Nixon failed to do either of these things.

Cuomo ran his campaign with a one-two punch of touting his liberal bona fides (the silk glove) and really putting the screws to anyone who dared to defy him (the iron fist.) Nixon’s campaign, by contrast was very… political insider-y. It was oriented with almost laserlike precision on people like myself, who care an awful lot about things like Cuomo’s perfidy, his ideological heresies, his treasonous collaboration with Republicans, his close alliances with the IDC (the Nixon campaign took out a whole weeks worth of very expensive, high-profile ads centered around this), and his overall massive unreliability.

That really gets folks like me fired up. But it isn’t the kind of thing that fires up the typical voter. Not even the atypical Democratic voter who is engaged enough to show up to our state primary. (Which is on a different day than our federal primary because this is New York and we can’t have nice things.)

This isn’t to say Nixon ran an issue-free campaign. Far from it! She hammered on the MTA, which is a titanic disaster and not likely to get better under Cuomo going forward. Her education proposals were top-notch. Her criminal justice and marijuana initiatives were well-thought-out, well-crafted policy that would not only genuinely help people, but politically speaking play very well in the city, and the city is where the votes are.

It didn’t help much; Cuomo is wired into all the cities power brokers and community leaders and they already KNOW who and what he is. Nixon needed to make a case to their satisfaction that she could serve their needs better than he, and she didn’t. And there aren’t enough people like myself available, statewide, to be activated purely on “man, FUCK Cuomo” to build an alternate coalition.

Basically, Cuomo more or less had this race in his hand almost from the moment he engaged himself and his political apparatus to put it there.

However.

Even though he’s buried Nixon, Cuomo had to fight for it. Generally speaking an incumbent Governor in a politically reliable state doesn’t want to be fending off high-profile primary challenges, and like Teachout before her Nixon spent much, much less money per vote than Cuomo did. So what’s the deal with Cuomo, anyway?

Well… Andrew Cuomo is an immensely transactional politician. First elected in 2010 on a platform including but not limited to union-busting, hiring freezes, wage cuts, property tax caps, and heading into his inauguration flirting with a state constitutional amendment that would limit increases in spending to the rate of inflation (!), he rolled into a first term in which every press release from the Governor’s office couldn’t use the phrase “fiscal discipline” too many times. He worked with the Republicans in the state senate to ensure that they would retain control of said senate, essentially using them as a way to limit the political possibilities to ones he found acceptable while keeping his own hands clean.

He moved a bit to the left for his 2014 campaign, smashing right over Zephyr Teachout’s doomed primary attempt… and then started his second term with a little more union busting. The unions have largely put up with this; Nixon made an explicit bid to get organized labor on her side early, probably the smartest move she made in the whole campaign, and was rejected strongly. (And foolishly, in my opinion.) The major unions were all on Cuomo’s side, likely out of fear; according to the executive director of the Working Families Party, Cuomo point-blank issued a threat: “If unions or anyone give money to any of these groups, they can lose my number.”

Having established himself as a centrist, middle-of-the-road, socially liberal, fiscally conservative kind of corporate Democrat, it was supremely (and hilariously!) unfortunate for Cuomo’s political aspirations that this meant he got caught going in precisely the wrong direction in an increasingly leftist Democratic Party, especially after Trump’s ascension. Cuomo noticed this and reacted immediately; he tacked decisively to the left. Among other things; “free” college (in MASSIVE sarcasm quotes; the Excelsior Scholarships are VERY limited in scope) finally endorsing a fifteen-an-hour minimum wage (which if you look at his campaign literature you’d think was his own idea to begin with rather than something he fought against for years) and acting to at least somewhat rein in the IDC.

Basically, Cuomo kept himself on his very, very best behavior during the campaign, although the mask slipped in the last week; he may have rushed to prematurely “open” the bridge named for his father in order to get in a totally unnecessary pre-primary photo op, and the state party, largely his creature, decided it’d be a great idea to hit Nixon (whose kids are Jewish) with incredibly offensive and highly bogus anti-Semitism charges. It decided it would especially be a good idea to do this during during Rosh Hashanah, because fuck it, this is New York, we’re into irony here, aren’t we?

Still, he has tacked to the left, and as he’s felt more threatened he’s tacked harder. He used his pardon power to restore voting rights thousands of felons a few weeks after Nixon declared her candidacy, and you’ll never convince me this move wasn’t ENTIRELY cynical. The #NixonEffect was real.

Credit for all this can’t be laid solely at the feet of Cynthia Nixon, of course, especially because the big success story yesterday comes from the New York State Senate, where a bunch of brave, dedicated folks rose up from below to utterly destroy the IDC.

And I do mean utterly. Of the eight treasonous “Democrats” composing the Independent Democratic Conference, six of them are now out of a job, having been primaried into oblivion as they so richly deserved. That’s an especially impressive showing considering that there were only sixteen contested senate primaries in the entire state; HALF of all Democratic State Senators being challenged this year were being challenged explicitly because of their membership in the IDC and their collaboration with Republican vandals.  It will be a long time before any New York Democrat (not named Simcha Felder) dares to do so again.

For my entire adult political life, indeed, for literally my entire life period (and I am not a young man) there has been an… understanding… in this state when it came to the Republican Party and the New York State Senate. That’s dead now. It’s the end of an era here, really; Joe Bruno retired years ago, and Shelly Silver is in prison, but 2018 is the year the specific kind of machine politics they represented in this state dies its ignominious death.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that machine politics in this state are dead. This is New York, and even if it weren’t, American cities have a large tendency towards machine politics anyway. But the Democratic machine is likely to change, indeed, already has; it is becoming more ideological, more partisan, more concerned with achieving concrete political goals rather than going along to get along while everyone quietly feeds at the trough. It’s a machine that will react to influence and pressure from the left.

This has happened before; the infamous Democratic Tammany Hall machine, after getting the shit kicked out of it both externally and internally (in the 1900 and 1901 elections, respectively) because the only thing it stood for was being a bunch of crooks, was forced to clean house and shift to the left, installing new leadership at the turn of the 20th century in the form of Charles Murphy. The machine was still the machine, and after Murphy’s tenure it would eventually drift back towards being mainly concerned with the sort of ridiculous pocket-lining graft that Gotham might not have invented but definitely perfected, but it also produced people like Al Smith and Ed Flynn, who were passionately committed to left-liberal politics and eager to keep the machine focused on that.

Hopefully, this heralds a similar sea change. And Nixon deserves a lot of credit for providing a nucleus for this change to coalesce around, even if she lost her own race.

As for Cuomo… he might have beaten her, and he might have been running smart, but Cuomo was also running scared. And finally, for once, a high-profile Democrat running scared ran to his left.

That’s great. Let’s keep him scared. That would be a fine, fine legacy for the Nixon campaign.

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