For Cuomo, It’s Good to Be the A.G.

Andrew Cuomo, who now leads a sitting governor by more than 30 points in a potential 2010 primary match-up, is living proof that, for an ambitious politician who knows what to do with it, there really is no better stepping-stone than the office of state attorney general.

The job really is an image-maker’s dream. Week after week, you can score enviable headlines by investigating and prosecuting the latest perpetrators of wrongdoing or injustice who happen to be in the news—actions that will win you praise for standing up to the bad guys and appreciation from voters of all partisan stripes.

And unlike, say, a governor, you aren’t under the microscope yourself; no need to worry about making appointments, tending to an unwieldy administrative bureaucracy, or working with an uncooperative state legislature in which (at least) half the members want to tear you down. When a polarizing issue comes along, the kind that most politicians strain themselves trying to finesse, you don’t even have to express an opinion: You’re a law man (or woman). You’re above politics.

Just look at the remarkable image rehab that Cuomo has engineered.

A little more than six years ago, his promising political career was in ruins. He’d sauntered into a gubernatorial primary with Carl McCall, a sentimental favorite of many Democrats and the choice of the party’s establishment, and his aggressive tactics had backfired. Days before the primary, polls showed McCall’s lead climbing to over 20 points. By a ratio of 10-to-1, Democrats expressed a favorable opinion of the front-runner; for Cuomo, that same ratio was barely two-to-one—and undoubtedly much, much worse among independents and Republicans. Bowing to the inevitable, Cuomo pulled out of the race just before the vote.

Cuomo’s grab for the governorship was understandable. At 44, he was anxious to assume a prominent place on the national political stage; that meant serving as governor or senator—and with Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton in place, the Senate option was out. So he took his shot, and when his campaign ended in humiliation, it meant that Cuomo would have to look lower on the totem pole to restart his political career.

After four years of diligent fence-mending, he spied his chance, with Eliot Spitzer vacating the AG’s office to mount a can’t-miss bid for governor. It’s a testament to how battered the ’02 campaign had left him that Cuomo had to sweat out a competitive Democratic primary with chronic also-ran Mark Green. But Cuomo did win the nomination, and in the Democratic tide of 2006, that was tantamount to election in November.

When he took office, Cuomo’s image was still that of a run-of-the-mill politician. But since then, it’s been impossible to go a few weeks without seeing his name prominently linked to an investigation or prosecution of one scourge of humanity or another.

Early in his tenure, Cuomo took on student lenders, drawing attention to their cozy relationships with colleges and universities and the financial victimization of students that this produced. The saga played out in the press for months, and the villains—lenders and greedy schools—were always the same. So was the good guy: Andrew Cuomo.

He’s gone after Facebook, the popular social networking site, drawing attention to the ways in which it might make children vulnerable to predators, and he’s attacked Internet service providers that maintained discussion groups used by disseminators of child pornography. When the housing crisis erupted, Cuomo was quick to subpoena records from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and when the lavish corporate bonuses of companied bailed out by the federal government caused a firestorm, Cuomo scored heavy media coverage with an investigation of Merrill Lynch’s bonuses.

None of this is to disparage the work that Cuomo and his office have done. No one would argue that ripped-off students who received rebates because of his lending investigation didn’t deserve them or that the world is somehow a worse place because Usenet discussion groups used by child pornographers have been disabled.

But this is exactly the point: AG’s can investigate and prosecute virtually anyone and anything they want. Cuomo, as any politically ambitious AG would, has embarked on a series of inquiries guaranteed to maximize headline-making potential without the risk of any controversy.

The result has been a astoundingly quick turnaround in his image. By a 63 to 15 percent margin, voters now have a favorable view of him; among Democrats, the figure is 78 to 7 percent. In a potential ’10 primary against the hapless David Paterson, Cuomo now leads by 32 percentage points, 55 to 23. He has gone from being a pariah in his own party just a few years ago to standing as the most popular politician in the state. That national future he wanted so badly in 2002 has never been closer.

He’s hardly the first politician to figure this out. In the wake of the corporate scandals that exploded earlier this decade, Spitzer tapped into a current of public outrage, earning the politically invaluable moniker “the sheriff of Wall Street.” When he ran for governor in 2006, no one cared what his positions were on any issues; his reputation preceded him.

It happens everywhere. Richard Blumenthal has been the attorney general of Connecticut since 1990—the “eternal general,” he is sometimes called—and has routinely used his office to cater to popular sentiment, like his highly-publicized push to sue the Atlantic Coast Conference when it nearly destroyed the Big East conference (in which the University of Connecticut plays) in 2004. What a surprise: Blumenthal is, far and away, the most popular Democrat in Connecticut.

In California, 70-year-old Jerry Brown has masterfully resurrected his political career with an aggressive focus on global warming as that state’s AG. He’s now preparing to run for governor, the office he last held in 1983, next year. In Florida, Charlie Crist went after spam email and high utility rates as AG—then won the governorship in 2006. And before he was governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton was—you guessed it—the state attorney general.

Actually, L.B.J. was one of the first politicians to grasp the benefits of leading a timely, highly visible, and thoroughly non-controversial investigation. He was never an AG, but he did maneuver his way to control of a Senate subcommittee on preparedness during the Korean War. As Robert Caro meticulously documented in Master of the Senate, L.B.J.’s committee spent two years churning out alarmist (and bogus, but no one seemed to notice) reports designed for popular consumption. He wanted, as Caro wrote, “to have publicity without, so far as possible, the danger of bad publicity.” And he got it.

Barring a dramatic turnaround by David Paterson, Andrew Cuomo is the clear favorite to win next year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination and the governorship itself. The public believes, as it once did with Spitzer, that it has spotted a leader.

Never mind the evidence that Cuomo really isn’t much of an administrator. Yes, his mismanagement of the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development when he ran it under Bill Clinton probably cost taxpayers well over $100 million, and an exhaustive review of Cuomo’s record as HUD secretary led The Village Voice‘s Wayne Barrett to conclude last summer that Cuomo “made a series of decisions between 1997 and 2001 that gave birth to the country’s current [mortgage] crisis.”

But when you have the ability to churn out headline-generating reports on outrageous corporate bonuses, what’s a negative story or two?

For Cuomo, It’s Good to Be the A.G.