Cynthia Nixon
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Pop Culture

Even Though She Won't Win, Nixon's the One

Barring a remarkable turnaround in Cynthia Nixon’s poll numbers in the next two weeks, the odds that she’ll beat Andrew Cuomo in New York’s Sept. 13 gubernatorial primary don’t look a whole lot more promising than the Cleveland Browns’ likelihood of playing in Super Bowl LIII. New Yorkers like to send charismatic neophytes who’ve never before run for office to the U.S. Senate, not the governor’s mansion. (Think Robert F. Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Hillary Clinton.) Albany is where the hard-nosed career pols wind up, mostly because they’ve got the right linguistic skills. Even if it’s not their first language, they need to be fluent in Hack.

However, you’d never have guessed what a long shot Nixon actually is from her aggressive debate with Cuomo on Wed. night. The two-term incumbent only agreed to one, but that was a big concession; last time around, when his opponent was Zephyr Teachout, his preference was for none. Even though he leads Nixon by 35 points, giving her a chance to come at him was his way of taking no chances, because a freeze-out would have been awfully bad optics in 2018. In the year of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a hard-nosed career pol can’t be too careful.

It’s not as if Cuomo could totally avoid condescending to Nixon, whose inexperience plainly annoys him almost as often as her amused poise forces him to pretend he’s a jollier, more benign fellow than he takes any pleasure in being. (Sample patronizing line: “To change the campaign finance laws, you need something called the New York state legislature. You can’t just snap your fingers!”) But he couldn’t condescend to her as bluntly as he was plainly itching to, partly because male politicians—Democratic ones, anyhow—who try that with female opponents these days are just begging for instant dinosaur status.
Cuomo couldn’t even get much traction out of trying to remind people that his opponent is a, you know, actress—one who’s spent her career dealing in “fiction,” not “real life.” In the age of Trump, that just doesn’t sound like an especially consequential distinction.

Unsurprisingly, he outpointed her at wonk-speak, which is the publicly acceptable version of being fluent in Hack. Nixon’s counter-strategy was to keep pivoting to the issues she’s most associated with and comfortable discussing: education and health care, mainly, along with attacking Albany’s corruption. But that got her badly into the weeds at least once. Fumbling her way through answering a question about state troopers being redeployed from upstate to New York City, she ended up advocating for “less investment in law and order” as opposed to schools and Medicare for all. We don’t even want to guess how well that line must’ve played north of Yonkers, not to mention east of Brooklyn.
Nixon can’t speak Hack to save her life, and governing does involve some ability at conversing in state legislators’ native tongue.
Even so, it probably goes without saying that a lot of their contentious but inconclusive gabble about the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s woes or the state’s affordable-housing crisis didn’t tell viewers much, except that Cuomo and Nixon’s personality clash divides them even on issues that they—shh, don’t tell a soul—seem to more or less agree about. Debates are always zestier when the rival candidates appear to genuinely dislike each other. These two only shared one even semi-friendly laugh, when Cuomo made a not-bad joke toward the end about how he didn’t think either he or Nixon was much good at giving short answers.

The rest of the time, we were watching one of 2018’s defining duels between a spirited political outsider and the sort of dyed-in-the-wool Establishment Democrat who has to keep his face clenched not to start yelling that he’s the one who’s paid his dues, dammit. Of course, in Cuomo’s case, his celebrated father’s name paid a lot of his dues for him, adding considerable entertaining awkwardness to their back-and-forth over naming the old Tappan Zee Bridge’s replacement after Mario Cuomo. However, Nixon did have the grace to say she thought something, somewhere, should be named after Cuomo’s dad, whom she called “a great governor.” Say, how about Grant’s Tomb?

On the gaffes-and-zingers scorecard, which is all anybody really cares about, neither candidate either made a fatal error or came up with a killer putdown. Nixon’s “I think that experience doesn’t matter that much if you’re not actually good at governing” wasn’t a bad line, but let’s note how neatly it sidestepped the problem that New York voters have no way of knowing whether she’d be any good at governing, either. After all, she can’t speak Hack to save her life, and governing does involve some ability at conversing in state legislators’ native tongue.
We’ve got a sneaking hunch that Nixon did well enough to earn herself something Cuomo doesn’t have, at least beyond Albany: a future.
Of course, only one exchange in the whole debate has any chance of being remembered 72 hours from now. That was when Cuomo got peeved at Nixon’s interjections when it was his turn to speak. No doubt, he’d have been even more peeved if he’d been able to see the mute version—that is, Nixon’s side-eye reactions and droll facial moues during his answers. But he could hear her verbal digs, and finally snapped, “Can you stop interrupting?” Nixon came back with “Can you stop lying?” and Cuomo answered, “As soon as you do.”

Um, hold on there, Governor. Did you just admit your own pants are on fire? That you’ve been spouting gobbledygook all night to pull the Establishment wool you’re dyed in over people’s eyes? It’s not like we didn’t suspect that, understand. We just didn’t expect you to confirm it.

Not that it matters, since Nixon—despite more than adequately holding her own—probably didn’t budge those poll numbers much. That’s why we’re still betting that Cuomo will cruise to re-election. But we’ve got a sneaking hunch that Nixon did well enough to earn herself something he doesn’t have, at least beyond Albany: a future.