Andrew Cuomo: When the Prince Has No Armor

It finally happened. Andrew Cuomo has resigned as governor of New York. After nearly all of New York’s most prominent elected officials—and President Joe Biden—called for his resignation, and a state investigation concluded that he sexually harassed 11 women, the pugnacious pol held out for as long as he could before capitulating. This represents a stark contrast with last year, when Cuomo achieved acclaim for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Political reporter Ross Barkan’s new book, The Prince: Andrew Cuomo, Coronavirus, and the Fall of New York, argues that the governor’s seeming success (modeled, many would say, after the advice of Renaissance philosopher Nicolò Macchiavelli) was always a fraud: Cuomo’s decisions in the early days of the pandemic caused an enormous number of avoidable deaths, and his further mismanagement forced some of his state’s most vulnerable people to bear the brunt of the disease. The book turns a spotlight not only on Cuomo’s incompetence but on his career-long adherence to the interests of moneyed elites. Barkan both corrects Cuomo’s record and illustrates the harm his governing ideology has done.

As the pandemic first hit New York last year, Barkan writes, Cuomo delayed taking necessary actions to stop the spread of the disease. Rather than ordering immediate lockdowns, he downplayed risks, repeatedly arguing that the disease would be less destructive than the common flu. By the time he finally issued a stay-at-home order, on March 20, there were thousands of new cases every day in New York City alone. Had Cuomo acted a week earlier, according to a May 2020 Columbia University study, he would have saved nearly 17,000 lives.

But Cuomo did not only initially underestimate the pandemic’s severity. Some of The Prince‘s most disturbing passages show that, as the crisis wore on, he allowed nursing home residents and healthcare workers to suffer immensely. Elderly coronavirus patients did not receive the care they needed, while frontline workers, denied appropriate protective equipment, struggled to manage rising caseloads. When the dust cleared, the state had tallied more than 15,000 deaths in nursing homes.

The most effective aspect of Barkan’s book is its focus on the historical and political-economic roots of the tragedy. Problems with hospital capacity, for example, are traced back to a reduction in state hospital beds, from about 74,000 in 2000 to about 53,000 last year. These cuts, austerity measures to save the state money, were bipartisan, carried out by Republican governor George Pataki and by Cuomo. They went hand in hand with Cuomo’s use of the state to promote private profit, as when he worked with lobbyists to shield hospitals and nursing homes from legal liability during the pandemic. At the same time, the governor resisted funding relief for tenants, and preferred gutting state services over raising taxes on the rich; only a progressive state legislature, including six DSA members, could force him to act in the interests of working people.

Cuomo’s actions seem especially perverse because of how brazenly he lied about them. In his self-serving memoir of the pandemic, he presents himself as having been far ahead of the game in understanding the damage the virus would cause. And in what became a major scandal, Cuomo’s administration publicly undercounted deaths in nursing homes. The governor’s public relations offensive distorted the reality: his response to the pandemic served the wealthy but harmed ordinary people.

Andrew Cuomo is unlikely to regain his former popularity anytime soon, but it’s still worth studying his response to the pandemic. His failure to protect his state’s people and his willingness to designate as expendable certain groups—like elderly nursing home patients and underpaid care workers—typify the damage wrought by neoliberal governance. We should be glad to have reporting, like Barkan’s, that brings it to light.