Nate Silver writes of the marriage equality issue that “the type of leadership that Mr. Cuomo exercised — setting a lofty goal, refusing to take no for an answer and using every tool at his disposal to achieve it — is reminiscent of the stories sometimes told about with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had perhaps the most impressive record of legislative accomplishment of any recent president.” He notes that this is very much “a brand of leadership that many Democrats I speak with feel is lacking in President Obama.”
This is all true. Still, I would say that the bigger difference isn’t so much about the leadership style as it is that Cuomo won. Suppose that the New York State Senate operated according to the rules of the United States Senate and a bill failed unless it secured a 60 percent supermajority. What would people be saying about Andrew Cuomo now? Well, it seems to me that many people would be castigating his failed leadership. Instead of Michael Barbaro’s account of his behind-the-scenes leadership reading like a virtuouso performance it would be reading like a story of a failed inside game. The meeting with high-dollar pro-equality Republican donors would seem not savvy, but naive and weak. Conversely, if the US Senate operated on a 50 vote rule, then both the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank bill would have gone further in advancing progressive priorities, there would have been more economic stimulus in the 111th Congress, the DREAM Act would have passed, and it’s conceivable that some kind of nationwide carbon pricing scheme would be in place.
Which is just to say that political institutions matter, a lot. Getting concurrent majorities in two legislative houses, as Cuomo did, is very hard. Getting a 60 percent supermajority is harder.