Will State G.O.P. Follow Its King?

With Governor George Pataki due to give his annual State of

the State speech even as a certain new Democratic Senator from New York takes

her seat on Capitol Hill, it seems appropriate to remark upon the New York

Republican Party’s astonishing reversal of fortune since 1998. A revived state

Democratic Party is gleefully contemplating next year’s gubernatorial race, and

if Mr. Pataki is to inspire his party for a new round of battle, he will need a

St. Crispin’s Day moment or two in his speech. That happy band of brothers with

whom he revived the Republican Party was ne’er so large, but now it has been

reduced to a very few, and they can barely remember what feats they performed

only six years ago.

Strip their sleeves and Republicans will reveal the scars of

the last two years. They lost a U.S. Senate seat; they lost control of the Nassau

County legislature; they lost their heaven-mandated place at the head of

Westchester County’s government; they lost a state Attorney General; they lost

a chance to thwart Hillary Rodham Clinton; and in the unhappy year of 2001,

they very likely will lose the New York City Mayoralty. The fewer men, the

greater share of honor? Brave words from a king with a conscript army; not so

encouraging if you’re a two-term governor looking at a tough re-election

campaign.

Rick Lazio’s defeat last fall left Mr. Pataki as the only

Republican among the five statewide elected officials (not counting the

lieutenant governor). The Lazio campaign, as prone to catastrophic error as the

New York Jets, was a reminder that the state Republicans have been content to

play a prevent defense since their startling victories of 1994. And, as John

Madden or some other football guru has said, the only thing a prevent defense

prevents is victory.

“We’ve missed a real

opportunity to stand for something,” Representative Peter King, the eternally

blunt Long Island Republican, told me. “We’ve watered ourselves down in New

York. We haven’t given people a real reason to vote for the Republican

Party.”

The last time I saw Mr. King, he was standing next to Jimmy

Hoffa Jr. at a labor union reception during the Republican National Convention

in Philadelphia. The Congressman was talking about forming new coalitions with

traditionally Democratic constituencies like labor unions. A quixotic

assignment? Apparently-Mr. Hoffa wound up endorsing Al Gore. But at least Mr.

King was making an effort to expand the Republican Party’s base.

It occurred to me then,

and time has only reinforced the impression, that Congressman King would have

been a much stronger Senate candidate than his Long Island colleague, Mr.

Lazio. Mr. King’s appeal is to Reagan Democrats, the very constituency any

statewide Republican must court if he or she is to overcome the Democrats’ huge

registration edge in New York. Mr. Lazio never offered New York voters a

compelling reason to vote for him-the very criticism Mr. King has of state

Republicans in general. He came across as callow, ambitious without purpose, a

lightweight. Mr. King is-and would have been seen as- authentic, grounded and

serious. But Mr. Pataki chose Mr. Lazio, and now he must live with the

consequences.

In the meantime, the Congressman finds himself surrounded by

putative allies, but not friends. Mr. King dropped George W. Bush for John

McCain early last year, so he doesn’t expect much in the way of friendly

invitations from the White House. The House of Representatives may have a

Speaker from the Midwest, a region that shares outlooks and concerns with the

Northeast, but it is ruled by Republicans from the Sunbelt-not necessarily Mr.

King’s kind of Republican. The Congressman, though he is pro-life and a

cultural conservative, is a persistent critic of the Christian Right’s

influence over his party and its policies. “They take issues like tax

cuts-we’re not talking about issues like abortion or the death penalty or civil

rights-and give them a moral dimension they shouldn’t have,” Mr. King said.

“That’s dangerous. After all, you can’t negotiate if you approach everything as

a moral issue.”

So Mr. King only seems to have the comforts denied Mr.

Pataki. The Governor stands alone; Mr. King is a Republican in a city now owned

and operated by his party. Yet the Congressman may, at times, seem as lonely as

the Governor.

“My concern is what’s

going to happen to New York,” he admitted. “Bush lost here by 25 points. He

didn’t need us to win.” The narrow margin by which Republicans hold the House

may be all New York has in the new, restored Washington of George W. Bush.

Speaking of his fellow New York Representatives, he said: “We have to stay

alert and hope votes come up where we’re really needed.”

There is no question that this King hath stomach for this

fight.