The classic comment about the impact of George Pataki’s withdrawal from the presidential race came from the rival he most disdained, his onetime constituent Donald Trump: “There’s not much to split up because he’s at zero.”
Truth is, Pataki registered just enough support to qualify for “undercard” debates; the real “zero” candidate was yet another former governor, Virginia’s Jim Gilmore. And some may just lump Pataki together with the assortment of current and past state chief executives who turn out to have picked the worst possible year to run for president (four of them have now dropped out; four are still in, though Mike Huckabee probably won’t survive caucus night in Iowa; and the other three are decidedly second-tier at best).
But what’s distinctive about Pataki is that he has credentials that used to account for a lot in national politics, even in the GOP. For many decades, being governor of New York was an automatic qualifier for a presidential run in either party. You don’t have to go back to Averell Harriman or even Nelson Rockefeller to find the era of Empire State power; the man Pataki vanquished in 1994, Mario Cuomo, could have almost certainly become a viable candidate and possibly the Democratic front-runner in either 1988 or 1992 had he pulled the trigger. He sure wouldn’t have been delegated to an “undercard” during debates. And even more recently, a pol who theoretically ranked below Pataki in the New York political world, Rudy Giuliani, entered the 2008 cycle as a putative front-runner. Yes, Rudy was a dominant personality who benefited enormously from his global media exposure on 9/11, but New York’s cultural, economic, and historical preeminence mattered, too. Had Al Qaeda struck Omaha, it’s doubtful its mayor would have automatically been considered presidential timber.
Giuliani’s Achilles heel, in fact, was also the second distinctive thing about Pataki that used to matter a lot less in Republican politics: He flunked key cultural-issues litmus tests. It should be reasonably clear by now that there is no room in a GOP presidential nominating contest for anyone who favors any sort of right to choose abortion, as Giuliani and Pataki both did when making their bids. The actual debate in the GOP is over how ruthlessly to enforce a general ban on abortions (i.e., rape and incest exceptions, and inclusion or exclusion of certain contraceptives deemed “abortifacients”), how far to go in keeping women from having abortions (i.e., shutting down the federal government to defund Planned Parenthood, defying judicial rulings), and how violently to denounce pro-choice people like George Pataki (i.e., the use of Nazi and Holocaust analogies).
It didn’t help that Pataki, though somewhat less than Giuliani, had a reputation for being soft on what conservatives call “the homosexual agenda.”
All in all, Pataki was seeking the presidency via a “moderate lane” that no longer exists. Yes, there are genuinely moderate Republican voters, and a lot more conservative voters who self-identify as “moderate” to distinguish themselves from the fire-breathing fanatics who used to be found only in the fever swamps of the John Birch Society and other far-right groups. But the constellation of heavily funded ideological groups exerting power in the Republican Party, and the structure of the nominating process, make something like a Pataki candidacy a nonstarter, even if the candidate had more star power, money, and elite respect. That should have been made clear four years ago by the quick demise of the campaign of someone who did have some star power and at least mainstream media respect, Jon Huntsman. He, too, seemed to be running in the GOP of fond but increasingly distant memory.
And that’s why Trump’s dismissive comment about Pataki’s withdrawal has a deeper meaning: The former New York governor represented nobody with real power in the Republican Party. He will not be missed.