In truth, Pataki has little choice but to talk about 9/11, if only to distract from the issues on which he is out of step with the Republican-primary rank and file. That Pataki is too moderate on social matters—abortion, gun control, gay rights—to pass muster with Christian conservatives is the source of much of the doubt about his prospects among the political cognoscenti. As Wolfson remarked a few years ago in the New York Times, “Pataki is more liberal than many of the Democrats that we had running for Congress.” Or as Terry Branstad, the former Republican governor of Iowa, put it more recently, with delicious understatement, “Pro-choice and pro-gay—those are problems in Iowa.”
“It wasn’t like he was loved when he was in the State Senate. By the end, he had two choices: either run for governor—or run his farm in Peekskill.”
Pataki’s response to such skepticism is an appeal to the old-school notion of the GOP as a big tent. “I’m just going to argue, let’s look at what unites us as Republicans,” Pataki says as we chat at Golden Grain, “and let others do the polarizing.” Put aside the naïveté—Pataki may have a point. It’s possible that Republicans in 2008, on purely pragmatic grounds, may indeed embrace a candidate with some moderate bona fides. But in trying to be that guy, Pataki faces stiff competition.
“I think of the primaries as the Final Four, with different brackets in which the candidates compete to make it to the top tier,” says Dan Schnur, who served as John McCain’s communications director in the 2000 race. “In 2008, you’re going to have the Establishment bracket, where George Allen is probably the top seed; the hard-line bracket, where Sam Brownback is the guy to beat; the outside-the-box bracket, with Mitt Romney and maybe Newt Gingrich; and the maverick bracket of McCain and Giuliani.” Thus the insuperable dilemma for Pataki, according to Schnur: “He’s the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee of the McCain-Giuliani bracket.”
Given the odds stacked high against him, some suspect that if Pataki runs, the job he’ll actually be auditioning for is the vice-presidency. (His wife, Libby, has insisted that “he was on the list” in 2000.) Yet if this is Pataki’s endgame, it strikes me as being nearly as fantastical as his dreams of the presidency. Certainly, any ex-governor of a large and delegate-rich state is automatically a contender for the second spot on the ticket—assuming that he stands a solid chance of delivering his state. Which Pataki, let’s be honest, does not. In fact, according to the most recent Marist poll, his approval rating is a desultory 30 percent—the lowest level recorded by a New York governor in the 23 years since Marist began asking the question.
George Pataki has more than his share of deficiencies, to be sure, but he’s never been lacking in shrewdness. He carefully reads the wind and weather; the difficulty, nay impossibility, of getting anywhere with a presidential run must be no secret to him. So why is he doing what he’s doing? The answer may be, why not? Republican congressman and Pataki pal Tom Reynolds once described the situation Pataki confronted in 1993. “It wasn’t like he was well loved when he was in the State Senate,” Reynolds said. “By the end, he had two choices: either run for governor—or run his farm in Peekskill.”
Today, Pataki faces essentially the same situation—only now he occupies a higher rung on the power ladder, and the farm in Peekskill has been replaced by a 299-acre spread just north of the Lake Champlain shoreline. Pataki has made a career of defying political expectations. Perhaps he nurtures the fantasy that he can do it again; perhaps he thinks a presidential run would be a hoot, no matter how it turns out. But he’d be wrong in either case. Pataki may believe that he’s seen it all in New York politics. Yet as bad as things have gotten for him here—with Eliot Spitzer demonizing him one day and his fellow Republicans doing the same, if more quietly, the next—well, let’s just say they could be worse. Much.
Pataki is always quick to note that he loves the great outdoors. If he grasps what’s good for him, he’ll decide to enjoy it in upstate New York and not in central Iowa. But for the sake of all of us with a sense of humor—or a mild streak of sadism—let’s hope that the fire keeps burning in his belly.