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Five Lessons for Hillary Clinton From Andrew Cuomo's Primary Scare

Diana Robinson

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who not so long ago was being touted seriously as a 2016 presidential prospect (by your humble correspondent, among others) had a bit of a fright in yesterday’s Democratic primary. He got only 62 percent of the vote against Zephyr Teachout, a late-entering challenger who spent one-fortieth as much for her votes as he did, and lost whole swaths of the state to her by wide margins (Columbia County, adjacent to my home county in Western Massachusetts, gave Teachout a whopping 78 percent of its vote. She also won easily in Albany County, where Cuomo now spends most of his time.)

The primary was a dismally low-turnout affair, but you can be sure that it was attracting interest from at least one denizen of the state: Hillary Clinton of Chappaqua. Clinton, whose husband has been Cuomo’s boss and role model, surely gleaned some lessons in Cuomo’s brush with embarrassment on his left flank. Granted, these lessons may not hold much relevance for Clinton if she does not face a serious challenge from the left in 2016. Still, for now, here are some of the warnings—Teachout’s Teachings?—she ought to take from yesterday:

1. Social issues alone won’t cut it with liberals. Cuomo has made much of championing his liberalism on social issues, above all same-sex marriage. But that clearly has not satisfied many liberals in the state who don’t care for his pro-business centrism on the economic front, where he has slashed taxes for the corporations and the wealthy. Clinton gets this, to some degree, which is why she’s been voicing misgivings about rising income inequality. Still, she can’t seem to help giving $200,000 speeches to Goldman Sachs bankers.

2. Maybe voters care about ethics and campaign finance, after all. Teachout and her running mate Tim Wu (an occasional contributor to this magazine) based their campaign on a good-government platform: arguing for public campaign financing at the state level, which Cuomo has been decidedly lukewarm about, and drawing attention to the federal investigation into Cuomo’s self-interested hobbling of the commission he appointed to propose ethics reforms for Albany. This sort of stuff isn’t supposed to excite voters, but it seems to have in this case. Something for Hillary to keep in mind as her bundlers set out to hoover up Wall Street cash.

3. Beware women challengers. It’s hard to generalize from just one race, but there may be something about a reformist challenge coming from an appealing female candidate that makes it more credible. Hillary has somewhat less to fear in this regard given that she can carry the glass-ceiling-smashing standard as well. Still…watching Teachout in action one couldn’t help but think of another zealous reformer who has attracted a loyal following and has little affection for Hillary Clinton.

4. Don’t belittle your opposition, however minor. Cuomo’s approach to dealing with the Teachout challenge was to refuse to even acknowledge it. He declined to debate her, ignored her when she tried to say hello to him, and refused even to give her his phone number so that she could call to concede on Tuesday night. In hindsight, this boorish behavior seems to have been a mistake: It won her sympathy with voters and, yes, with the press. Already, the Clinton camp has been sending out signals that for another Democrat to run in 2016—even as a respectful sparring partner—would be a grave affront. This approach only seems likely to elevate whichever brave soul does decide to step into the ring.

5. Liberals are a restive bunch these days. Who knows what’s behind it: disappointment with Barack Obama, fury with congressional Republicans, dismay about soaring inequality. Regardless, liberals seem to be in a trouble-making mood. You could see it in their rejection of Christine Quinn, the establishment favorite to succeed Mike Bloomberg in New York; you can see it in the troubles that Rahm Emanuel is having in Chicago. Right now, there’s no one openly serious about appealing to that squirrely-ness in 2016 other than grumpy Bernie Sanders. But if someone else comes along … you just never know.