Such excitement this week when word came that George Pataki probably was running for president: People poured out of buildings hollering the news; phone lines jammed and folks asked one another, “Where were you when … ?” No, wait a minute, that was the earthquake. Reaction to Pataki mostly was underwhelming, or simply whelming, at best.
Look, I have never met any of your brothers-in-law, but they all have nearly as much chance of being elected president in 2012 as the former governor. But I exaggerate. There was at least a low-grade buzz when Pataki’s PR flack told us that George was mulling it over. He had mulled before, but nothing came of that earlier mulling. This time, though, Pataki has decided that the current crop of GOP candidates is “thin” and worse, they have no firm plans for saving the nation from fiscal doo-doo. Pataki’s people did not say this, but with Tim Pawlenty out of the race, I think they also saw opportunity for another charismatically challenged former governor with little national name recognition.
So what makes George run? What makes him think that a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, Rockefeller Republican, who, after his first two years as governor, never met an expensive government program he did not sign into law, will now appeal to a GOP base that is socially conservative and anti-big government, anti-big spending? Cynics insist that Pataki is angling for the vice presidential slot or a cabinet post like Interior, or, maybe more likely, that he wants to polish his political relevancy to benefit that New York City law firm that employs him as a rainmaker.
“It’s possible that any one of those things is true,” says a former high-ranking Pataki appointee who does not want to be identifed while analyzing his former boss’ motives and chances. “But if George gets into this race, he must believe that he has an opportunity to win. George has wanted to be president since he was in high school. Do I think he can win? No, I don’t. But do not underestimate George Pataki. This is a guy who grew up poor; his father was a postal worker and his mother was a domestic — she cleaned the homes of the rich ladies in Westchester. And George went from there to the Ivy League on scholarship.
“All his political career, that was the biggest thing he had going for him; people underestimated him. Look what happened to Mary Goodhue (the late state senator from Putnam and Westchester Counties and Pataki’s political mentor and employer, whom he would later primary and defeat). George is one of those ‘aw shucks’ types who will destroy you if you stand in his way.”
Since he left Albany four years ago — not that he was here that much anyway — Pataki has tried to reinvent himself as the fiscal conservative from his first two years as governor and from his final days when he left behind a $3 billion surplus. He’s been traveling around the nation under the auspices of his own nonprofit, “No American Debt,” warning people in places like Iowa and New Hampshire of the dangers of a credit-card-addicted government, hoping that residents of those states do not ask awkward questions about New York’s per capita debt rising by 50 percent while he was governor or about his expansion of Medicaid to the point where it threatens to bankrupt county governments.
Pataki cannot win the reddest of Republican states but seems to sense opportunity in states where a moderate who was buddy-buddy with public employee unions might do OK — like New
Hampshire, where independents can vote in either party’s primary and, without a Democratic contest (presumably) there, they might be inclined to vote for George.
Bill Powers does not think it will work. As GOP state chairman, Powers had a big hand in Pataki’s defeat of Mario Cuomo in 1994 but now says George is too late; not enough time left, he says, to put together a national organiztion. Of course, Powers has a dog in the fight: Rudy Giuliani, a longtime rival of Pataki’s. With Giuliani due to announce his plans in September, Pataki could force the mayor to move that up, and this week, Powers, not Giuliani but Powers, said the former New York City mayor, a social moderate like Pataki, would make an outstanding veep candidate with Texas Gov. Rick Perry heading the ticket.
George cannot win, says Powers, but another Pataki might make it to the White House one day. Ted Pataki, the former governor’s 29-year-old son, a Yale graduate like his father and a former Marine like Powers, is considering a run for Congress. Not from New York, but from Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and their son. Republicans from New York do not have much traction within the party these days.
In the unlikely event that the Republican Right does warm to a governor from New York, chances seem better that his name would be Cuomo, the newer, more conservative Cuomo, than Pataki.