Mario Cuomo on America's Choice in 2008

GUEST: Mario Cuomo
VTR: 03/05/07

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today’s guest and I go back together a very long time.

Indeed, if memory serves me at all well – even leaving out the times we spoke on the air when he actually wanted to be the Democratic candidate for Mayor of New York City – I suspect that in just about each of the many, many times he’s joined me here on The Open Mind since he began his three terms as Governor of New York State in 1983, I’ve either asked Mario Cuomo why in the world he wasn’t heeding the many thoughtful and hopeful Americans who knew him to be his party’s best and most obvious choice to run for President of the United States … or yelled at him for not running, as he could have, should have.

I’m still sore that he didn’t.

But if you’d been with me in its Great Hall recently, where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous 1860 Cooper Union Address that did so much to make him President, you would have seen New York’s former Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo and the House of Representatives’ former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich getting just a bit down and dirty in Presidential politics.

For this sort of “odd couple”…the one who regretfully just won’t, or at least hasn’t, run for the highest office in our land (maybe he’d simply rather be “right”!)…the other who I suspect would very much like to sort of “nudge” his hat into the ring in 2008 … this “odd couple” professed to use the occasion to begin at Cooper Union itself a continuum of responsible, serious and civilized dialogues, debates, conversations – call them what you will – among next year’s Presidential candidates that would enhance, rather than belie, the seriousness of the choice before America.

And Governor Cuomo I’d like to ask you how successful you felt the Cooper Union effort was and what you can do and what you will do in the future to enhance that?

CUOMO: Well the point of the Cooper Union exercise was exactly what you said. And that was to demonstrate to people that there’s an alternative to the way we normally explore issues in Presidential campaigns.

Let’s remember what we do most of the time in campaigns. How do you discuss complicated issues like “What will you do with Iran? Should we go to war? Should we not go to war? Should we hold it as an option?”

What do you do with questions like, “What are the alternatives to oil … exactly. Do you include nuclear energy?” What is the, the answer to the question, “How do you take care of the virtual or potential insolvency of the Social Security fund?” Etc., etc.

Well, here’s how you do it in most campaigns. 28 second commercials. Really? True that on abortion. Try it on … what is the role of religion … in 28 seconds in a commercial. So those commercials are almost always, by virtue of their simplistic character distorted. If only by omission.

Well, what else do you do? Well, you do campaign trips. Well … “campaign trips” is one speech in 10,000 places. That’s, that’s what the campaign speech is.

And then you have debates. And what is the debate? Well does the debate test intelligence? Not really. Memory … yes. Because you’re not allowed to read anything at these debates.

Does it, um, does it test your, your knowledge? Not really. How much can you learn from me … in 60 seconds to answer the question … in 30 to respond? And so it tests glibness, memory, theatricality … your ability to be spontaneous with a joke. Terrific. Who wants a President (laughter) who’s a good spontaneous joke teller?

You want a President who will be measured, who will think and, and will make a judgment after study. And so the debate should reflect that.

The debates you use now are misleading. And not helpful at all.

What we tried on the stage at Cooper Union was to show that if you, if you spend some time discussing it and get people to round out their answers, you’ll learn more.

And, Dick, there are so many questions you have to get answered this time around. This is more than in any race I can remember … literally … what would you do about Iran? What do we do about Israel? That’s been a question for a long time, but, but now it’s more urgent than ever.

But what do you do about a middle class that’s sinking. Where you have only one out of four workers high skilled? And people saying you have a great economy at the same time that people are spending themselves to death.

People are spending more money than they earn. Literally, they’re going into tremendous debt. We set records in bankruptcy. What do you about that? Etc., etc., etc.

Bottom line … we need more than ever an opportunity to hear people on the issues in an intelligent way. Otherwise it’s going to come down to race, gender, charm, who speaks the best, who didn’t make a big mistake. If, if we don’t find a way to find out where these candidates are on the issues … really … healthcare and all the rest, we’re in for trouble.

We’re liable, god forbid, to make another mistake like the one we made in 2000.

HEFFNER: We didn’t make a mistake in 2000, did we?

CUOMO: Well, the Constitution wasn’t terribly helpful. The people chose correctly, I think, when they chose Gore. But even then it was a very close race. Which is disconcerting anyway. When you look back now and realize …and I think this is an objective statement … the last six years have been maybe the worst six years for a President in our modern history. I don’t know of anybody who had the failures that this President and his Administration have had.

Now I’m not saying the trouble, because trouble comes to you whether you’re competent or not. But the failures in execution. That wasn’t just Iraq and it wasn’t just Katrina, it’s everything that they put their hand to that they have failed at.

They haven’t been able to make a good budget, they’ve run up a big deficit. They’re … they started a war we didn’t need. They’re losing in Afghanistan. Every day we’re falling further behind. They, they have done absolutely nothing right.

HEFFNER: But the Governor Cuomo the fact is that in 2004 we had had experience with this Administration and we, by a rather impressive majority, in terms of the popular vote, sent this gentleman back to the White House.

CUOMO: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: Now, your explanation?

CUOMO: Oh, I think, Dick, that one’s easy.

HEFFNER: What?

CUOMO: You had a war. He was in the war. We were attacked … 9/11. People were angry. People were frightened. People were confused and the first thing this President did was a very obvious thing, but a right thing.

And he had 90% of the people, at least, with him … when he said, “We’re going to Afghanistan because that’s where Al Qaeda is, that’s where Osama bin Laden is, that’s where the Taliban are … we’re going to go and we’re going to go get them.” And he declared war on … not on Afghanistan, but he went to Afghanistan … war on the terrorists in Afghanistan. That was absolutely the correct thing to do. And he had the whole country with him.

And, if he had stayed in Afghanistan he would have kept the country’s support. He didn’t. For some … what some people thought now was just absurd reason, he went to Iraq. Not to get rid of a dictator. But to protect us from “weapons of mass destruction” that didn’t exist. He made a calamitous error in doing that. And everybody knows it.

So … but … in between, we’re in the middle of a war and we didn’t want to tear down our leader in the middle of a war. It hadn’t been demonstrated to us yet how wrong he was about everything. About going to war, about starting the war. The reason for the war. What would happen when we went and sent our troops. How we would be received. How they would react to us, etc., etc., etc.

HEFFNER: Now …

CUOMO: So … that, that’s why we voted for him. Was because …

HEFFNER: Now …

CUOMO: … we were at war.

HEFFNER: … what gives you the sense that we, as a people, are ready for what it is that you want to have happen in these dialogues, conversations, debates? Call them what you will.

CUOMO: (Sigh) I, I think most people … certainly we saw at the Cooper Union debate with … not … the dialogue with Newt and I … the audience that left there … and they were New Yorkers who waited on line to get in and I mean, he brought a group of Republicans with him and that was clear, and that’s fine.

I didn’t have to because I’m a New Yorker and, and there were New Yorkers and that was good enough for me. But, it was clear from the audience and their reaction that they loved the idea that we spent a half hour a piece talking at length about what we were talking about.

That doesn’t mean they were convinced by either of us on all the points we made. But they liked the idea that there was a Tim Russert there when it was all over to ask both of us questions. They liked the idea, they felt that they were being dealt with as intelligent human beings instead of being mocked with a debate that was just, you know, absurd because of, of the format.

HEFFNER: But how do you move to there from where we have been?

CUOMO: Now what we want to do is to get a leading Democrat and a leading Republican, who are candidates … now Newt eventually may be a candidate. He is a virtual candidate now although he’s not a de facto candidate or a de jure candidate (laughter). He’s a virtual candidate because they have him in the polls and he did very well in a Conservative poll …

HEFFNER: Indeed.

CUOMO: … over the weekend without declaring himself a candidate. I think he’s like to run. And, and my guess is he will unless one of these Republicans goes so far out front and so permanently out front that he feels it’s, it’s foolish.

But the people indicated that they liked hearing from him. They liked hearing from me. They liked the detail they were getting and they wanted more.

And they told us that. They told us that night standing around and talking to them. They told us in e-mail messages after it. And Cooper Union was delighted.

What we want to do now is try to … well Gingrich is pushing very hard to get debates between Democrats and Republicans after the Conventions. I’m doing it before the Conventions. I want them right away. I want to see our leading Democrats debate our leading Republicans as soon as possible. And if not the people at the very top of the pole. Then, then let an Edwards debate a Mitt Romney.

Or … and, and put them in the Great Hall. And give them full opportunity to state themselves. And then let them be questioned intelligently and give them plenty of time, and let them use books if they want to. Let them bring in a consultant if they want to, somebody they trust and know to help them with the answers. We’re not interested in a game that tests their memory. We’re interested in what their answers are.

What will you do about health care beside tell us there are 48 million people without it? And that some people have to wait around and pray for the money to buy prescription drugs when they get old.

We know what the damn problems are. What will you do about solving them? And we don’t want to hear that you’re going to do Child Health Plus … that was my program. Child Health Plus, it’s now the best healthcare program that the Federal government has. I mean outside of Medicare and Medicaid. And it is a good program.

But don’t tell us that you’re going to beef up Child Health Care Plus, of course you should do that. But that doesn’t take care of 48 million people who don’t have insurance. So what will you do? Say it slowly so we can understand you, you know.

And where will you get the money to do it? If it’s going to cost more money. Now those are the questions.

Dick, the biggest question of all that never gets asked and never gets answered is … where do you get the money to do what you’re planning to do. This is particularly relevant to Democrats because normally we want to do more for people through government than the Republicans do.

And so we should be the first to say, “Not only … this is what I want to do for 48 million of you, this is what I want to do to find an alternative … including nuclear energy, incidentally, which is contentious. This is what I want to do to give people workers who are not yet high skilled before they die, a chance to be high skilled. And workers who have lost their positions because we’re giving the jobs away to cheaper labor elsewhere, give them a break.

Or … you find a high skilled worker cheaper in Ireland than you can find him here … so you lay off the guy here. Who’s going to take care of his family in the interim while he’s trying to find another situation? Well, we should be able to answer that question. I did answer that question at the debate. And we should ask the Republicans the same question.

Your military forces are now not ready for a second action. If, god forbid, we were called to a second Iraq you wouldn’t have the armed forces for it. You don’t have the armed forces to do Afghanistan at the same time that you’re doing Iraq .

Now, how are you going to beef that up? Are you going to have a draft, god forbid. If you don’t have a draft, are you going to get volunteers? Who’s going to volunteer? And where will you get the money to pay them? We don’t have the armor we need for some of our fighting people.

My son Christopher was there, he was in a Humvee, he almost got blow up. The Humvee in front of him got blown up and what he reported on fifteen minutes after the accident was, you know, some of these vehicles are properly armored, they’re not properly covered.

Now, you mean, you’re going to go through a whole race and nobody’s going to tell you how they’re going to pay for what they promise you … for more soldiers say the Republicans. For more healthcare say the Democrats.

How will they pay? Where will the money come from? You already have a tremendous deficit. What we said at Cooper Union was those questions demand answers.

HEFFNER: And you gave an answer.

CUOMO: We did. But, but, but that’s not helpful, Dick. The people who are going to be President have to give the answers; the people who want to be President have to give …Hillary has to give the answers.

Rudy has to give the answers. Not enough to say, “I was an icon, and I … you know, I did this and I did …” You did, god bless you, you’re one of ours and you’re a hero all over the world. Now you tell us what you’re going to do about Iraq. And what you’re going to do about Iran. All right, you spent four days telling us, you know, what to do aft 9/11. Now spend four hours telling us what to do with Iran. That’s …

HEFFNER: You going to get …

CUOMO: … what we need.

HEFFNER: … you going to get those Cooper Union exchanges?

CUOMO: (Sigh) Gee willikers … I mean …

HEFFNER: Honestly. Tell me whether you think you’re going to get them.

CUOMO: I don’t see how we can not get them. What are they going to say to us?

HEFFNER: No.

CUOMO: And if they do I’ll report that to the American people and so will Gingrich. We said, we said, “We want you to come to Cooper Union.” It’s not going to cost you a thing. We’re not going to charge anybody anything. And all we want to do is give you a chance to do what you’re begging for … convince people you should be President. Only we’re going to make you do it in an intelligent way so that they’re not going to have to rely on half-baked answers and cute deceptions. You know, we’re going to make you answer the questions, that’s all.

So you want a chance to be President? Free. Come on in … have a war … a verbal war … an intelligence war … with guys and gals on the other side. Well, how do you say “no” to that?

HEFFNER: Well, Mario Cuomo, we’ve been saying “no” to that for decades now. The first so-called debate was how many years ago … 1960 … and they haven’t improved. Quite the contrary. And I, I do have to ask how serious you can be about this unless you start where you do in a sense in raising these questions … with the dollar sign. Talk about taxes, talk about how are we going to pay for these things? Do you think we can eliminate the element of big, big money which makes the debates and makes the television commercials possible?

CUOMO: Yesterday, um … yesterday was Sunday … am I allowed to say that?

HEFFNER: You’re allowed to say that.

CUOMO: Yesterday was Sunday. This yesterday … what the viewer’s yesterday was, we’re not sure, but my yesterday was Sunday.

And one of my granddaughters called, “Will you be home 1:30 to 2:30 Grampa? Yeah, why? I want to talk about changes to the Constitution” (laughter) … she’s a student at Horace Mann. I said, “What for?”, “I’m doing a report.

I said, “Good, what do you need me for, for your report? You, you (laughter) make your ….” Anyway, she came over.

And what did we agree on? Is the first Constitution change. Now she’s 17, 16, going to be 17. And it was … we should change the Constitution to get rid of Buckley against Vallejo.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

CUOMO: Buckley against Vallejo is a Supreme Court decision that says in effect you can prevent politicians from raising too much money. But you cannot prevent them from spending too much money. And so if you happen to be a very rich person, you can spend all the money you want.

Now … sometimes you get very good results. Bloomberg spent a lot of money, $75 million … whatever …and you got a really good Mayor. No question about it.

Incidentally, he could decide to spend $500 million and be a President. Because, especially this year … what’s happening … well, 08 … what’s going to happen is … as you know they’ve bunched the primaries up near the beginning of the year. Including California, Florida, some very big states. Which means very early in the year you’re going to know who the candidates are for the Democrats and the Republicans. Much earlier than normal.

But that leaves a much longer time interval between then and the end to introduce third parties. Nader has already said he wants to do it.

HEFFNER: Don’t even say it.

CUOMO: Well, he said it. I didn’t say it, but Nader did. He said especially if Hillary is a candidate, he said he would seriously consider coming in. Sam Waterston who played Abraham Lincoln has a party …

HEFFNER: And who was there at Cooper Union the other night.

CUOMO: That’s, that’s right. And he’s considering it. Well, there’s nothing to stop a Mike Bloomberg from saying, “Okay, I see you candidates, I don’t think either one of them is better than I am. I don’t think either one of them is as good as I am. I’ve heard what they have to say, now I’m going to tell you what I have to say.” And then spend $500 million dollars and maybe get to be …

HEFFNER: Is this a nomination?

CUOMO: Well, no, no, no … but, see … maybe there is … there is an upside to being able to spend your own money. But I think in the long run I’d rather you didn’t have that opportunity and we could limit all expenditures in races to get something closer to a fair system.

HEFFNER: Meaning public support for campaigns?

CUOMO: I think the best system would be public support for campaigns. You can’t spend your own money, we’ll give you the money, but we’ll also condition the money. We won’t let you spend it on 28 second commercials. We won’t … if you want to do a commercial, it has to be five minutes. Why? Because it’s harder to bomb-fog somebody in five minutes and get away with it, than it is to fool them in a 28 second commercial.

You have to answer to certain inquisitors, a certain number of times. And so you have Tim Russert type inquisitors, or Charlie Gibson or any of the other good people, at it. Dick Heffner asking you questions. You have to submit essay answers on big questions. A certain number of them. People have questions. They’ll submit the questions, you have to answer them in essay form. That would be … and you can’t spend your own money, giving yourself an advantage who don’t have a lot of money. I think that would be a good set of changes in our system. Not going to happen, but it’s nice to dream about.

HEFFNER: You think it won’t happen?

CUOMO: No, I don’t think it will happen.

HEFFNER: But you’re so optimistic about getting the candidates to face off this way …

CUOMO: That’s a much simpler thing … much simpler … I mean you, you go to the candidates and you say, “Will you do this?” They say, “No” and you go to the public and say, “Listen don’t, don’t be fooled by these people when they tell you that want you to know where they stand. And they’re going to do anything they can to let you know.” They don’t really want you to know or otherwise they would seize every opportunity, and this is a big one.

Public radio has said they’ll do it. This, this network has said they’ll cover, CNN said they’ll be there. How can you say, “No”. Can I give you another idea?

HEFFNER: Please.

CUOMO: And unconventional convention. The last two weeks … two weeks before the election … now what is their Republican and their Democratic Convention now? It’s an exercise in narcissism. You get up there and you exaggerate your virtues and you exaggerate the vices of the other guys. Okay. You don’t’ say anything bad about yourself and you don’t say anything good about them.

And then you have a lot of music and funny hats and horns and parties and everybody has a good time and people get … yes, they reach a certain emotional high point that juices them up for the campaign. And it’s, it’s nice. What have you learned? Nothing.

HEFFNER: What do you want to do?

CUOMO: I want an unconventional convention. I want both parties to come together for three days, over a weekend, say. Two weeks or so before the election. And what you have is a series of discussions and debates of … like the ones we had a Cooper Union. But you have all the important … you start with maybe the Secretary of Commerce …John Snow for the Republicans; Robert Ruben for the Democrats … whoever.

The Secretary of Defense. We have Wesley Clark and you have Gates … or whoever. The Vice President against the Vice President. And ultimately the Presidential candidate against the President candidate. So you do four, five, six of these debates over the weekend.

Now, look at what would happen the first time you did this. First of all, the networks would all have to cover it. I mean if you could get the parties to agree to this one unconventional convention … half Democrat, half Republican and maybe some room for Independents and you tried it for the first time. You would have to have stories over the weekend … all the … all the issues would be up front. All the issues would be dealt with. All the papers would have to cover them. All at once, just two weeks before the voting session, when people are paying attention. Be wonderful.

If it didn’t work, if it bored people, if the networks said they didn’t get their money’s worth, so you wouldn’t do it a second time. But at least you would have tried it once and tested the American people. And I think the American people would say “We much prefer this to what we used to do. At least we had a chance to listen. We didn’t have to listen. But we listened. And they talked … on all the issues. The Secretary of Commerce talked about business. And the Secretary of the Treasury talked about our deficit and talked about what it means, etc., etc., etc. And we got the best education we’ve every had on issues. The very best. We couldn’t, we couldn’t get this in a library if we spent a month, with the ease that we got it this weekend.”

What’s wrong with that idea? Why can’t it be made to happen?

HEFFNER: I have a better idea.

CUOMO: Yeah?

HEFFNER: Why don’t you run for President …

CUOMO: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … we can elect you and we can have all these good ideas be put before us.

CUOMO: See … the, the …

HEFFNER: And you can’t filibuster … we only have 30 seconds.

CUOMO: It’s such a boring … you know … I can give you one answer to that question … that people don’t want to believe anyway.

There are people who … you know are told that they have a chance to run for President who really believe that there must be somebody better than they. And what’s wrong with that as a position? Forget about all the other things I ever told you … all of which were true. How about the fact that you just didn’t think you were good enough, it was hard for you to believe it. I’m Groucho Marx … I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me. You know (laughter). It wasn’t quite that. But I never felt that I was the best available to run the greatest country in world history where a mistake could threaten the whole world’s peace. It takes a very great act of self-confidence to conclude that. I never reached that point.

HEFFNER: That’s our trouble, Mario Cuomo. Thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

CUOMO: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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