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On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo used his daily coronavirus press briefing to chastise his younger brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo—who has now been diagnosed with a case of COVID-19—for having allowed their 88-year-old mother to visit his house. “My brother’s smart, he was acting out of love, luckily we caught it early enough,” Cuomo said. “But it’s my family, it’s your family, it’s all of our families. And this virus is that insidious, and we have to keep that in mind.”
The episode—vivid, personal, and making a specific point about the dangers of COVID-19—captured what has made Cuomo and his press conferences the most visible counterpoint to President Donald Trump’s daily briefings. While the federal response led by Trump largely sought to keep the public in the dark about the extent of the crisis, Cuomo’s briefings are hailed as the most reliable source of public information in the country.
But in recent days, it’s become clearer and clearer that Cuomo’s initial response to the crisis lagged behind that of some of his fellow Democratic governors—most notably Washington’s Jay Inslee and California’s Gavin Newsom. Newsom and Inslee both reacted more swiftly and forcefully to the crisis in ways that are saving lives on the West Coast, yet it’s Cuomo who is being hailed as a possible future president and strong national leader.
Both Los Angeles and San Francisco had their first cases—and deaths—weeks before New York, but New York has quickly become the global center of the pandemic while the situation in California has remained comparatively calm for now. From the point of each state’s 10th death and 100th case (testing has been more sporadic in California, so it’s not fair to compare overall positive tests necessarily), New York’s caseload and number of deaths have accelerated more steadily and rapidly. While the vastly greater density of New York City versus California’s major metropolitan areas partially explains this course, it is likely that California’s more aggressive and swifter social distancing actions helped as well.
In an elementary demonstration of the additional seriousness with which Newsom has taken social distancing, his own daily briefings are done by teleconference rather than the in-person press conferences Cuomo has continued. Even taking into account the disadvantage of the remote format, though, Newsom’s actions and style are less suited for successful political theater.
During these much drier Newsom tele–press conferences, the California governor has played up a brand as a technocrat, focusing on partnerships with Silicon Valley businesses in coming up with ways for the state to prepare for its own looming coronavirus onslaught. On Monday, for instance, he boasted that community surveillance based upon user-shared data from Silicon Valley firms has helped guide the state’s decisions. “Working with Esri, working with BlueDot, working with Facebook, Apple, and others, we have our modeling that is done on a daily basis based upon these patterns as well as patterns around the rest of the country and the rest of the world,” he said. Data assessment is the way out of the crisis, but it is not particularly dramatic.
By contrast, Cuomo’s comfort playing on his famous last name, his family’s political dynasty, and his apparent touch for personal narrative often make the press conferences deeply entertaining.
But Cuomo begins these press conferences with facts: slides showing the daily number of cases, hospitalizations, intensive care unit intakes, and deaths across the state of New York and broken down by locality. He then describes the on-the-ground situation with specific numbers of what protective personal equipment and life-saving ventilators exist on the ground in New York, what the state still needs, when the projected need will be highest, and what the state is doing and will need to do in order to prevent a worst-case scenario where New Yorkers see health care rationed for people who might die without aid.
After flatly refusing on Tuesday to offer a “protocol” for rationing health care, Cuomo reassured New Yorkers that he was trying to do all that was necessary to meet an anticipated need of 20,000 to 40,000 ventilators in the coming seven days to three weeks despite an intense scarcity that has been exacerbated by the federal government’s lack of action.
“We’re creative and we’re working and figuring it out, and I still am hopeful that at the end of the day we will have what we need,” he said after listing several backup plans for ventilator usage.
Cuomo’s performance is succeeding with the people of his state—on Monday it was reported that his approval rating is up to 87 percent. Trump’s nationwide approval rating, which has spiked to 47 percent according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, is paltry by comparison.
Cuomo’s popularity has garnered attention from Trump, who has said he would be a stronger candidate than the current presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, but that Cuomo would still lose to him. Cuomo, though, has largely refused to take the president’s bait.
Instead, Cuomo has focused on the positive. As he regularly does, Cuomo again on Tuesday thanked the federal government for its response, which has been deeply inadequate but has also included sending more than 4,000 ventilators from the national stockpile, helping the state transform New York City’s Javits Center into a field hospital, and sending the USNS Comfort hospital ship to Manhattan. Cuomo has even been making nice with Trump’s much-loathed son-in-law.
“The federal government is a partner in this obviously. I spoke to the president again yesterday about this situation. I spoke to the vice president, I spoke to Jared Kushner,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “The White House has been very helpful.”
Cuomo portrays his cordiality as a requirement of national unity in the midst of a political crisis, rather than acting as a sycophant to an egomaniacal president.
“Democrats want to criticize Republicans, and Republicans want to criticize Democrats. Not now, not now,” he said. “The virus doesn’t attack and kill red Americans or blue Americans—it attacks and kills all Americans. And keep that in mind because there is a unifying wisdom in that.”
While it would normally be fair to understand these sorts of smarmy clichés as efforts to distract from a refusal to speak truth to power, there appears to be a tactical purpose here. As Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley has noted, we are unfortunately in a situation where lives could depend on the ability of state leaders to stroke a tyrannical leader’s massive ego. Cuomo seems to get that.
At the same time, he has confronted the federal response when absolutely necessary, saving his fire for when Trump makes circumstances most dire. For instance, Cuomo has chastised the federal government on a daily basis for its ad hoc approach to dealing with the ventilator shortage. And over the weekend, after Trump floated a quarantine of his state, Cuomo blasted that idea as “a declaration of war.” The president ultimately backed down.
That tactical flexibility is more necessary, however, because New York is playing catch-up. Newsom and his state’s mayors clearly acted earlier than Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on social distancing measures. San Francisco was one of the first places to shut down all bars, restaurants, and gyms, and it issued a stay-at-home order on March 16, the same day that de Blasio was defending his personal decision to go to the gym and one day after Cuomo, on 60 Minutes, played down the possibility of severe restrictions in New York comparable to Europe’s, saying, “I think actually the more successful you are early on, the less dramatic efforts you have to take later on.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued his own citywide shutdown order on March 19, with Newsom following with the nation’s first statewide order that same day. Two days before that, on March 17, Cuomo had resisted calls for a similar shelter-in-place order.
“I don’t think shelter in place really works for one locality,” he told CNN. “As a matter of fact, I’m going so far that I don’t even think you can do a statewide policy.”
Cuomo ultimately issued his own such order one day after California, on March 20.
Newsom and California’s early actions have allowed the state to focus on next-level mitigation actions. The state was the earliest to authorize eviction freezes and has done incomparable work in finding housing for the state’s sizable and vulnerable homeless population, including public-private partnerships with hotel chains.*
Still, Newsom’s jargon-filled speech can sound like incomprehensible technobabble compared with Cuomo’s family yarn-spinning and straightforward number-sharing.
“As it relates to the bending of the curve—we’re in the middle of this, and I think it would be too easy for us to assert a belief at this moment about what has or has not worked, except to say this: We know what does work, and that’s physical distancing,” Newsom said in one typical word salad on Monday, responding to a question about his state’s apparent success in mitigating the outbreak. “And we believe very strongly the stay-at-home order has helped advance our efforts in reducing the stress on the system that we believe would have already materialized in more acute ways had we not advanced those protocols when we did.”
That’s not quite something you can put on a bumper sticker!
One final thing that has helped Cuomo to become the national presence that Newsom has not may be the lower expectations of the New York governor among many progressives, who have battled with the moderate Democrat for years.
As HBO’s John Oliver summarized that sentiment, “I never really liked Andrew Cuomo before this, but I will admit he’s doing admirably well, and I can’t wait to get to the other side of this when I can go back to being irritated by him again.”
Correction, April 1, 2020: This post originally misstated that California was the earliest to order an eviction freeze. It was the earliest to authorize cities to implement such freezes.