Andrew Cuomo has been cast as the anti-Trump in the coronavirus crisis. The governor of New York was widely praised in the national media for doing all the things that the president could or would not do. In contrast to the president, he has been focused, informative. He has shown his emotions, making it clear he understands the human cost of the pandemic. While Trump uses his daily press conferences to spread conspiracy theories, Cuomo has alternated between delivering hard truths and offering a shoulder to cry on.
But in recent days, Cuomo has sounded an awful lot like Trump. Faced with mounting criticism of his handling of the coronavirus—and unfavorable comparisons with his West Coast counterparts, who appear to have been more successful in containing the outbreak—Cuomo has lashed out in an attempt to deflect blame. “Governors don’t do global pandemics,” Cuomo said at his press briefing on Tuesday. “Where were all the experts?” He also targeted the media, asking, “Where was The New York Times? Where was The Wall Street Journal?”
Cuomo’s emergence as the media’s foil to Trump, as I argued last month, always had more to do with aesthetic differences than the governor’s actual performance. With Joe Biden sidelined and West Coast Governors Gavin Newsom and Jay Inslee ceding the spotlight to public health experts, Cuomo was left to play a starring role. But the spotlight has its drawbacks as well; in this case, highlighting Cuomo’s spotty record on the coronavirus and reminding many people why they didn’t like him in the first place.
Cuomo has accepted some responsibility for New York’s slow response to stop the spread of the coronavirus—a response that has made New York, by far, the hardest-hit state in the country. “I wish someone stood up and blew the bugle,” Cuomo said in an interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan that aired on HBO on Monday. “And if no one was going to blow the bugle, I would feel much better if I was a bugle blower last December and January. Even though no one danced to the music, I would feel better.”
But he changed his tune the next day. As The New York Times’ Albany bureau chief Jesse McKinley wrote, Cuomo “apparently decided on Tuesday that there was enough blame to spread far and wide,” attacking the media, the World Health Organization, and federal agencies. The rant, which highlighted the mistakes that other leaders and institutions had made, came just when his own record was being newly scrutinized.
Reporting from the Times’ J. David Goodman in April revealed that delays caused by Cuomo and other leaders, most prominently New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, contributed to the staggering rise of cases in New York. “Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers,” Cuomo said on March 2. “We have the best health care system on the planet right here in New York.” He added, “We don’t even think it’s going to be as bad as it was in other countries.” Cuomo, like Trump, downplayed the risk of the coronavirus and resisted shutting down nonessential businesses, ultimately doing so three days after California, on March 22.
The decision to wait proved to be costly. At least 18,015 New Yorkers have died from Covid-19, compared to at least 1,887 deaths in California and 800 in Washington state. “You have to move really fast. Hours and days. Not weeks. Once it gets a head of steam, there is no way to stop it,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, a former commissioner of New York City’s Health Department, told the Times. Frieden estimated that New York’s death toll would have been 50 to 80 percent lower if social distancing measures had been adopted just one or two weeks earlier—around the time that Cuomo was thumping his chest and touting “the best health care system on the planet.”
Cuomo’s public messages were a big part of the problem. Like Trump, Cuomo spent much of late February and early March downplaying the pandemic. “The city’s epidemiologists were horrified by the comforting messages that de Blasio and Cuomo kept giving,” reported The New Yorker’s Charles Duhigg. Cuomo’s long-standing feud with de Blasio further hobbled the effectiveness of both executives and occasionally led to miscommunication and confusion.
Blame for New York’s lack of preparedness falls on many leaders and institutions, of course. But Cuomo’s recent unwillingness to accept that blame and his eagerness to tar others, particularly media organizations, suggests both desperation and Trumpian narcissism. Cuomo has hidden his famously thin skin for much of the past six weeks, but, with criticism mounting, it’s beginning to show through again.
As usual, Cuomo is aided by the fact that his rivals are incompetent. President Trump’s buffoonery will continue to contrast with Cuomo’s more professional mien. And then there is Bill de Blasio, whose instincts are so bad that he sometimes seems to be participating in a performance art piece about politics. Cuomo’s anti-press rant was quickly overshadowed by a bit of idiocy from de Blasio, a tweet singling out New York’s “Jewish community” after law enforcement broke up a funeral for a Hasidic rabbi on Wednesday.
But even the endless circus that accompanies both Trump and de Blasio can’t overshadow a tough truth for Cuomo: He has fallen back down to earth.