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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Cuomo needs ‘extreme’ makeover

I am not an “extreme conservative,” whatever that means, but I groaned when I learned of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ill-advised remarks in a radio interview last week.

In general, I think it’s a bad idea for the governor to suggest certain people don’t belong in New York, or to offer a definition of what an extreme conservative is, as the term is subjective and definitions might vary.

At the same time, I didn’t give Cuomo’s comments a whole lot of thought. They seemed like grist for the never-ending controversy mill that keeps talk radio and cable news in business. From what I can tell, much of their programming consists of highlighting some dumb or mildly controversial thing a politician or entertainer has said, and then expressing outrage, sometimes genuine, sometimes feigned, for days on end.

But as the controversy wore on, I began to take interest.

Cuomo, of course, has said, through his press office, that his remarks were taken out of context and blown out of proportion. A glance at the transcript reveals they were uttered during a discussion of the Republican Party, and what Cuomo described as an ongoing search to “define their soul. That’s what’s going on. Is the Republican Party in this state a moderate party or is it an extreme conservative party?”

Later on, Cuomo said, “Their problem is not me and the Democrats, their problem is themselves. Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are ‘right to life,’ ‘pro assault weapon,’ ‘anti-gay’? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are, and if they are the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York because that’s not who New Yorkers are. If they’re moderate Republicans, like in the Senate right now, who control the Senate — moderate Republicans have a place in this state.”

Cuomo counsel Mylan Denerstein later sought to clarify the governor’s remarks in an open letter to the New York Post.

“The Governor was making the point that he makes often: New York is a politically moderate state and an extremist agenda is not politically viable statewide,” she wrote. “New York has a long history of electing Democrats and Republicans statewide who are moderate rather than on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. That is an inarguable fact.”

My guess is this clarification won’t placate the people who are upset, and I can understand why. Most of the people I know think of their beliefs as correct and reasonable and not at all extreme.

I’m not talking about media figures — the hurt feelings of Fox commentator Sean Hannity aren’t of particular concern to me — but regular people. Regular people who identify themselves as pro-life, or oppose the SAFE Act, or don’t think gay people should be able to get married.

I can see why such people might hear the governor’s remarks and take offense. Because when you make sweeping statements about who New Yorkers are, or are not, you shouldn’t be surprised when people who disagree with you start pushing back.

Polling data indicate a majority of New Yorkers support gun control, but when you characterize the opposition as “extreme,” you marginalize counties, such as Schoharie and Saratoga, that have passed resolutions prohibiting the use of their official seals on SAFE Act correspondence. A majority of New Yorkers are pro-choice, but there are still a lot of people who consider themselves pro-life. A majority of state residents support same-sex marriage, but a sizable group remains opposed.

Is it really necessary, or even correct, to dismiss each and every dissenter as extreme?

I grew up in a small, conservative New Hampshire town and I also lived in Alabama for three years, so I understand what it’s like to feel politically out of step with your neighbors. And it’s possible I would have taken some offense had the governor of Alabama suggested “extreme liberals” had no place in the Dixie State while I lived there. Of course, it’s also possible I would have rolled my eyes, cracked some jokes and moved on. And maybe asked, “What is an extreme liberal, anyway?”

The 2004 book “The Big Sort,” by the journalist Bill Bishop, argues Americans are increasingly choosing to live among like-minded neighbors who share their political beliefs and cultural attitudes.

In an essay in The Economist magazine about this phenomenon, Bishop is quoted as saying the country is splitting into “balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible.” The essay goes on to say Bishop “has a point. Republicans who never meet Democrats tend to assume that Democrats believe more extreme things than they really do, and vice versa. This contributes to the nasty tone of many political campaigns.”

I don’t know Cuomo’s tone is nasty so much as high-minded and narrow.

The uproar over the governor’s remarks coincides with the release of a Siena Research Institute poll indicating his favorability rating, at 66 percent, is high, especially compared to potential opponents Donald Trump (38 percent) and Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino (14 percent).

Only time will tell, but I doubt the “extreme conservative” controversy will do much to dent the governor’s re-election chances. Too many New Yorkers like Cuomo and support what he’s doing. And I suspect the governor knows all that and sees no real political cost to riling up the people who don’t like him. These people are in the minority and are likely to remain so.

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