In a fractious exchange that may prefigure the tone of the Democratic presidential presidential primary in 2020, actor and activist Cynthia Nixon clashed with incumbent governor Andrew Cuomo at a televised debate at Hofstra University on Wednesday night.
It probably won’t move the needle that much in terms of who will win the gubernatorial primary – and therefore almost certainly, in a state as blue as New York, the election – but it did make for some entertaining television for the crowd of a hundred or so Nixon supporters and volunteers gathered at The Brazen Head bar in downtown Brooklyn.
Nixon is lagging behind Cuomo by more than 33 per cent, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, and so she had little to lose by coming out swinging. Early on this approach bore fruit; the former Sex and the City star landed a few solid blows on Cuomo by focusing on the scandal that engulfed his administration earlier this year when a former top aide was convicted on corruption charges.
In one particularly nasty exchange, Cuomo tried to strike back at Nixon with an attempted counter-accusation of sleaze, accusing her of being a “corporate donor” to de Blasio’s mayoral campaign and then calling in the favour afterwards (Nixon, like many actors and freelancers, has an LLC for tax purposes, but she is hardly Phizer; the “favour” was to ask to prevent helicopters hovering over the much-beloved outdoor theatre in Central Park).
In the back-and-forth which followed, Nixon pressed her position aggressively, leading a rattled Cuomo to demand, “Can you stop interrupting?”
“Can you stop lying?”, Nixon shot back, to cheers from the crowd at the Brazen Head.
But the bar became a little more subdued as the debate wore on and it began to become clear that Nixon, while she had clearly gotten under Cuomo’s skin, was not going to be gifted the kind of breakthrough viral moment she would need in order to meaningfully change the electoral difficulty she faces in the primary election on 13 September.
The relationship between New York state and New York City is often fraught. The mayor’s office often clashes with the state government in Albany, in part because the latter is, bizarrely, responsible for running the city’s transit system, the MTA. It was particularly telling that Nixon demurred on whether she would accept the endorsement of Bill de Blasio, the mayor of NYC, even though he is a friend and supporter of hers.
When Nixon gave a slightly tongue-tied response to a question about whether resources should be focused on education initiatives and not law enforcement, one of her supporters in the bar moaned “fuck. That’s going to kill her upstate.”
New York state may vote overwhelmingly Democratic in presidential elections, but that’s partly because “the city” is much more progressive in its politics than the rest and has the lion’s share of the state’s population. That means that this race, while not a perfect national synecdoche, may give us some idea of what the race for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 might look like. Nixon, whose campaign platform includes legalisation of cannabis, universal healthcare, and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), and who openly describes herself as a “democratic socialist”, is part of a new wave of radical progressivism in America.
It is a wave which began emerging on the left wing of the Democratic party during Bernie Sanders’ presidential primary run and has since been kicked into high gear by the constant stream of outrage produced as a by-product of the Trump administration. In the public consciousness, this wave is encapsulated in the stunning victory in June in the Democratic congressional primary of 28-year-old democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over party insider Joe Crowley, who had been tipped as a potential future speaker of the house.
However, Ocasio-Cortez won her primary in a district in the city which includes some of the most progressive neighbourhoods in the country. Nixon, to win the gubernatorial nomination, must win a primary in the entire state, which is a different proposition altogether – though not necessarily an impossible one, as the surprise victory on Tuesday of the progressive outside-shot Andrew Gillum in Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary shows.
In a way, though, Nixon’s campaign has already been a success whatever happens on primary day. Victory was always going to be a long-shot against Cuomo, who is scion to one of New York’s most august political families and whose position in the state party machine seems at this point to remain unassailable despite the corruption scandal.
But in outflanking him on the left during the campaign Nixon succeeded in forcing Cuomo, and thus the state party’s platform, powerfully toward more explicitly progressive ideas like marijuana legalisation. Jaw-droppingly, Cuomo even described ICE as “a bunch of thugs” at one point in the debate, a statement that would have been unthinkable for a mainstream Democratic politician even 18 months ago.
Whether she can pull off a surprise victory in September or not, Nixon has already achieved an enormous amount simply by lending her voice to those ideas and forcing the Democratic establishment to reckon with them.