No Good Deed

Written by Morgan Pehme on . Posted in Opinion.

Five hundred years before House of Cards, Niccolò Machiavelli counseled in The Prince that “men should either be caressed or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries, but of more serious ones they cannot; therefore the injury that one does to a man should be such that one does not fear revenge for it.”

A deft practitioner of pragmatic political philosophy, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is doubtlessly well acquainted with the substance of this advice—all the more reason he may be kicking himself for not having heeded it at a critical juncture in his career.

In 2010 Cuomo had the fate of the Working Families Party in his hands. The party desperately needed Cuomo, then the attorney general, to take its line in his bid for governor, for without his name at the top of the WFP’s ticket, the party would have been hard-pressed to garner the 50,000 votes in the gubernatorial race necessary to automatically secure its ballot line for the following four years.

Cuomo seemed to take pleasure in toying with the possibility of banishing the party to—if not outright oblivion—at least one of the strata of political purgatory. Hard as it is to picture now with the WFP at the pinnacle of its power to date, in 2010 the party was down in the dumps, its credibility impugned by the Data & Field imbroglio and its raison d’être diminished by the rise of Obama and the eagerness of New Yorkers to embrace safe, centrist leadership in the aftermath of the Spitzer/Paterson saga. Had Cuomo rejected the line, he would have rendered it toxic, impotent or both—just as he did in 2002 when he let the Liberal line wither on the vine by withdrawing from the governor’s race against Carl McCall.

Of course, ultimately Cuomo agreed to carry the party’s standard, a calculation that seemed at the time to reflect the WFP’s announcement that no charges would be filed against it related to Data & Field, as well as a fleeting bump in Carl Paladino’s poll numbers. The price of Cuomo’s altruism was public obeisance—the party had to swallow his agenda whole and swear it tasted delicious.

And so the WFP lived to fight another day—and fight it did. Three years later the scope of its electoral victories in New York City were of a historic magnitude, vaulting the party and its champion, Mayor Bill de Blasio, to a position of power rivaling that of the state’s mighty governor.

By all indications, it appears that the WFP has not forgotten the agony Cuomo forced it to endure not so long ago, and the indifference with which he has treated the party’s priorities since. The fierce intractability with which de Blasio and his WFP-aligned allies have confronted Cuomo on universal pre-K and the mayor’s proposed tax increase has betrayed a sense that their quarrel is more than just a policy debate—it’s personal, too. Now there are rumblings that the party might deny Cuomo its line in his re-election bid, and instead run its national director, Dan Cantor, in protest. The mere threat of turning the tables on the governor must surely delight the party’s leaders as poetic justice.

When Rome finally defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars, it salted the earth of its enemy’s city, so that nothing could ever grow there again. And nothing ever did.

Should the governor have killed the WFP when he had the chance? Only time will tell if he will regret having shown his adversary mercy.

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