Bush's Ally in Albany

IT IS A grim scene. Due to years of optimistic forecasting and late-night compromising, the budget is more out of whack than ever. In a desperate annual message, the president says it is time to stop spending beyond the nation's means. "We don't have any money....Let's shock everybody. Let's tell the truth."

Faced with the largest budget gap in the country's history, the president proposes draconian cuts which focus on social services. He especially targets Medicaid and aid to local governments.

But recognizing the vital importance of law and order (at least to his popularity), the executive leaves spending on prisons and police virtually unscathed. In fact, he boasts that he has built the most prisons in the nation's history and will continue to do so.

The president is adamant about new taxes. He proposes a gasoline tax hike most notable for its regressivity, but rails against proposals for a progressive personal income tax increase. "We will not consider any P.I.T. Not a smidgen. Not a big one, not a medium-sized one. Not a last minute deal."

Because of the plan, liberals charge, sick people will not get medical care, homeless people will not get shelter, poor children will not get decent schooling, and so on. Outraged liberals hastily call a rally under the sign: "Stop the Cuts. Tax the Rich."

The president responds compassionately but firmly. "They're saying they want to be preserved from the inconvenience of the recession, and I don't blame them." But an income tax increase, he goes on, "would punish most of all the people they claim to represent" by driving businesses which make up the revenue base to other nations with lower taxes.

As the budget deadline approaches, it becomes clear that the Democratic Congress will not tolerate all the president's cuts. But the president refuses to abandon the cuts and will not raise taxes--he even vetoes a first budget which does. Finally, at the eleventh hour and fifty-nine minutes, the president agrees to an income tax increase for persons earning over $100,000. Progressives cannot hail a victory, though. In the final analysis, says the Democratic House leader, "Nobody won."

MEMORIES OF president Bush's budget battle in 1990? Predictions for another one in 1992? If only it were so. In this budget nightmare, the "president" is Mario M. Cuomo; the "nation," New York State. As state Sen. Franz Leichter points out, "Read My Lips Mario Cuomo" now takes his rhetorical lead from Kennebunkport. Fortunately for a few Medicaid recipients, he's as unable to keep his promises on taxes as George Bush is.

Many commentators have lamented the "tragedy" of the New York governor. The same man, after all, delivered a moving "shining city on a hill" address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention, probably the best liberal speech since the '60s.

Invoking the need for "shared sacrifice" in pursuit of the "common good," it belied the claim that welfare liberals lack moral vision. And it announced, in the shadow of the Reagan presence and the absence of a Mondale anything, the coming of The Great Liberal Hope.

Cuomo's speeches remain stirring today, even as they strike a less hopeful tone. As he said last winter, "Preserving this state as a place that provides opportunity to the able and protection to the defenseless--that must be our goal now. It will not be easy."

And to be fair to Cuomo: New York is a heavily taxed state (though not particularly due to him). Successive Republican administrations have with-drawn federal support for state and local governments. The recent recession has hit New York especially hard.

The problem is not that facing all this, Cuomo's response was particularly irrational or brutal. But it was conventional, something his language is not.

In three terms as governor, and in striking contrast to his clear rhetorical model, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cuomo has not done anything creative--not for social programs, where his spending is generally generous but his innovations negligible, and not in taxing, where he's maintained the status quo. (His prison-building record could make Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-NY) blush, though.) He's called by friend and foe alike an "incrementalist"--not a true reformer.

MACHIAVELLI WOULD have used other language. Cuomo may incrementally drive New York City into oblivion. While the governor jumps on soapboxes and rightly berates Reagan and Bush for abandoning the cities, he cynically does the same himself. His most recent, most befuddling economic move shows just how far he has strayed from his own declared goals.

New York State pays one of the lowest proportions of Medicaid bills in the nation. This means financially strapped localities pick up much of the tab. Faced with an even worse fiscal mess than Cuomo, aides to New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins have often loudly hoped that the state would assume more of the fair burden. And it looked this summer as though Cuomo finally agreed. One fine morning, however, the governor said "there's no chance" of a state takeover.

Cuomo's obstinence hit the needy hardest. The state's poor live mainly in New York City, and the takeover would have shifted taxes out of the city and into the wealthier suburbs and upstate. Whatever the cost for New York City and its poor, Cuomo just wanted to look tough on the budget.

Why? Because of Mike Dukakis. Cuomo didn't want to look like another Northeastern liberal whose bid for the presidency failed. The governor, while he had "no plans, and no plans to make plans" to run for president, looked awfully presidential this past year in Albany. Pragmatically, cynically betraying his words with his deeds, the governor paid fitting homage to Presidents Reagan and Bush.

Cuomo may seek the White House because New Yorkers simply will not reelect him. Out-of-state liberals should not hold their breath, though. He ain't worth it.