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
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
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
“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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”