We Follow Slovenia: Bush to Voyage Here as Pataki’s Guest

Sometime later this month, President George W. Bush will

make his first visit to New York City. At his side wherever he goes will be his

loyal friend, Governor George Pataki. There will be-as always at these

events-pomp, long speeches, waves and smiles. Mr. Pataki, however, may be

smiling through his teeth.

The Governor has been as good a friend as anyone to Mr.

Bush. He walked all the way to the end of the plank in the effort to keep rival

John McCain off the ballot in the New York Presidential primary last year. And

then, leading a scathing anti-McCain campaign, Mr. Pataki delivered New York to

Mr. Bush-a step that threw the brakes on the “Straight Talk Express.”

George No. 2 put his fund-raising machine to work for Mr.

Bush, which soon made the Governor a serious contender for Vice President. And

even when that was no longer the grand prize, Mr. Pataki hustled down to

Florida to drum up support for Mr. Bush in the post-election, pre-decision

period.

But now it is payback time, and it is unclear how much Mr.

Bush can help George Pataki in 2002, in what will be the New York Governor’s

toughest reelection campaign to date. Democrats now control every state office

but the Governorship. Chances are good there will be a Democrat in City Hall

next year. And New Yorkers picked Al Gore by 60 to 35, a wider margin than any

other significant state.

Meanwhile, polls show President Bush’s approval ratings have

slipped nationally to the mid-50’s-levels close to Bill Clinton’s at about the

same time, immediately after the don’t-ask-don’t-tell imbroglio. But Mr. Bush’s

ratings here have always been lower than the Lexington Avenue Express tunnel.

New Yorkers don’t think much of the Bush tax cut, or his rollbacks on global

warming, power-plant emissions and arsenic in the drinking water. They don’t

like Attorney General John Ashcroft. And they cringe over Mr. Bush’s

isolationist policies, particularly when it comes to Europe, with which most

New Yorkers feel more akin than with, say, Texas or Wyoming.

Mr. Pataki is experiencing his Teddy Kennedy–Jimmy Carter

moment, circa 1980-the

we’re-all-in-this-together-but-don’t-stand-so-close-and-please-let’s-not-do-that-hands-clasped-and-raised-thing.

Which could make things interesting come the gubernatorial race in 2002.

At least one of the two Democrats vying for Mr. Pataki’s

seat, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, is already preparing to make hay of all

this.

“George Pataki not only supported George Bush, he continues

to support him,” Mr. McCall said outside a fund-raising breakfast for the Abyssinian

Development Corporation. “Despite the fact [that] the policies of what I call

‘the Ambush administration’ are harmful to most New Yorkers, Mr. Pataki

supported him on the tax cut, he supported him on stopping the American Bar Association screening of judges-he has been

in lock-step.”

Publicly, Pataki aides

are shrugging. “New Yorkers understand there are going to be times when the

Governor and the President agree, as they did on 245i”-the section of a law

relaxing some requirements for immigration for a limited time period-“and there

will be times when they disagree,” said Mr. Pataki’s spokesman, Mike McKeon.

“The Governor has never been shy about pointing out differences or

similarities, and we think people can figure that out.”

But while it’s in Mr.

Pataki’s interest to suggest he is willing to buck the President, the White

House is emphasizing their points of agreement. “The two are good friends,

having served as governors together, Governor Pataki having headed up Mr.

Bush’s campaign efforts in New York,” said White House spokesman Ken Lisaius.

“They maintain a very solid, good friendship and excellent working relationship

…. They work together and see eye-to-eye on any number of issues that are not

only good for New York, but good for the country.”

Privately, though,

Pataki aides are cringing. “The President is very conservative compared to New

York,” said one Pataki adviser. “I don’t know if we want him here.”

But, the aide added, “what matters is that the Governor and

the President are friends, and when the Governor really needs something, he

gets it.”

And that, indeed, is Mr.

Pataki’s dilemma: On the one hand, being the President’s friend-and from the

same party-should be a boon, particularly in an election year.

In fact, Republican

Party sources said Bush operatives were “helpful” on Mr. Pataki’s recent

Southern state fundraising tour. The President and the Governor do speak

regularly, advisers say. And just a few weeks ago, the two Georges, who

attended Yale University at almost the same time in the 1960’s, were reunited

there again when the President spoke at Yale’s commencement, where Mr. Pataki’s

daughter Emily was a graduate.

But on substance, Mr.

Bush could spell trouble, particularly on Mr. Pataki’s signature crossover

issue, the environment. Indeed, a recent ABC News– Washington Post poll showed Mr. Bush’s slippage largely came from

concerns about the environment-everything from the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge to

carbon-dioxide emissions. In New York, a state that has roughly three million

registered Republicans and five million Democrats, that hurts even more.

In fact, Mr. Pataki’s

whole strategy for reelection seems to be to soften criticism from the far

left, neutralize the near left and win over the middle. That’s why he keeps

rolling out environmental initiatives-June 10’s executive order requiring state

facilities to partially convert to renewable sources of energy was just the

latest example. That’s why he also keeps hammering away on Vieques (to good

effect: A recent Hispanic Federation poll showed Mr. Pataki’s approval rating

among Latinos at 52 percent, up from 20 percent after he was first elected).

And should the Legislature ever reengage and actually pass a state budget, most

Albany watchers think he’ll try to sign a gay-and-lesbian-rights bill into law

amid some public hoopla. These are not exactly the kinds of issues associated

with Mr. Bush.

Yet on some policy

issues, the President can help-and already has. Even after two years of

lobbying by then–First Lady Hillary Clinton and health-care workers’ union

chief Dennis Rivera, and despite top-level White House attention, the Clinton

administration never got through a waiver in federal Medicaid rules allowing

New York to expand Medicaid to families and single adults who make up to 150 percent

of the poverty level. Former Clinton aides blamed Washington, saying their

failure came from an inability to cut through the federal health-care

bureaucracy.

Yet on May 30, U.S.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson joined Mr. Pataki in a

health clinic on the Upper West Side that caters largely to black and Latino

patients to announce that the waiver had been granted. Thus President Bush, a

Republican who came late to supporting modest health-care reform proposals,

gave a Republican Governor the health-care program he had long wanted, one that

was a central pillar of Al Gore and Hillary Clinton’s health-care plans. The

program should carry an annual half-billion-dollar price tag for the federal

government.

The announcement was

made by a cabinet officer, not by Mr. Bush himself. Democrats have been

needling Mr. Pataki, noting derisively that Mr. Bush has been to New Jersey,

Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts, but not to New York. Mr. Bush even

visited California, another big loser for him in the November election, and one

with a Democratic governor-and a full month before his planned New York trip.

“He hasn’t been here,

and New Yorkers have gotten nothing from the President,” Mr. McCall snorted.

“There are no New Yorkers in federal posts!”

At the announcement of

the health-care waiver, Mr. Pataki shrugged this off. “What I want to see is

the best policies and the best decisions coming out of Washington,” Mr. Pataki

said. “And whether they’re made in Washington or they’re made in California or

they’re made in New York, so long as they’re the right decisions to advance the

interest of the people of New York, I’m happy.”

A New Yorker could still

get one appointment-Mr. Pataki’s top henchman, Charles Gargano, is still on the

short list to be ambassador to Italy, sources close to Mr. Gargano and the

White House say. But the position has little to offer New Yorkers-and in the

end, Mr. Pataki may need more to show for himself.

“The Governor is

cleverly defining himself as a different sort of Republican,” said one Albany

lobbyist. “But how long can he say ‘ No

mas bombas ‘ and not have the bombing actually stop? And what about the

environmentalists? If the Bush E.P.A. doesn’t go along with the Clinton plan to

clean up Hudson River PCB’s, the greenies may forget everything else the

Governor has done.”

Mr. Pataki’s dilemma may

never be more tangible than when President Bush finally comes to New York. Mr.

Bush’s New York schedule remains fluid; his trip has already been moved back,

from mid-month to June 27. A White House spokesman said the details were not

yet finalized.

Part of the uncertainty may be because the President, who

will probably stop only in New York City, had been hoping to schedule an event

that would tout the extension of the so-called LIFE Act, which eases

restrictions on immigration. But the Senate and House, now run by two different

parties, can’t agree on the provisions. Still, Republicans are hoping Mr. Bush

and Mr. Pataki can emphasize their similarities on immigration, an issue that

works well for the New York Governor.

But Democrats are

already planning to make mischief. “Heh-heh,” said an aide to former Housing

Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who is running against Mr. McCall for the Democratic

nomination, when asked if Democrats were going to highlight a Bush-Pataki

connection around the time of Mr. Bush’s visit.

It’s a tactic that

Hillary Clinton used during her Senate campaign, to great effect. “The

Bush-Lazio health-care plan,” she would say, or the “Bush-Lazio tax cut,” or

the “Bush-Lazio plan to privatize Social Security.” Mr. Lazio, whose record

was, in most respects, far more moderate than Mr. Bush’s, was nevertheless

hobbled by the label.

Then again, Mr. Lazio

was a relative unknown. A Cuomo aide, asked to fill in the blank in the

“Bush-Pataki ____ plan,” stumbled a moment, then offered the “Bush-Pataki

economy.”

“If some dumb Democrat tries to run against Bush, that’s

fine,” said Mike Murphy, who was a consultant to Mr. Lazio’s campaign. “But

it’s wasteful and silly and it won’t work, because people know Pataki is a

leader in the moderate side of the party. The only thing that counts is, does

Pataki have a good enough relationship with Bush to get things done?”

But Norman Adler, a consultant who works for both

Republicans and Democrats, wasn’t so sure. “I have been through this so many

times: How do you handle it when a larger office-holder isn’t so popular? You

don’t want to get infected with their virus. And right now, George W. Bush has

a low-grade fever.”