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
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
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
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
“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