One Critic’s View Of the Pataki Era

The worst thing that happened to Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial campaign was getting caught in the Buffalo blizzard. Mother Nature can slow down the Democratic nominee, temporarily—a feat beyond the power of his Republican opponent John Faso, who, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll, trails him by 52 percentage points. Since Mr. Spitzer’s lead would, by itself, give him a victory, we can look forward to four years of him and his running mates (his two enormous ears) in the statehouse.

Why are the Democrats sailing to such a clean sweep? St. Augustine’s Press, a conservative Catholic publishing house, addresses the question in Squandered Opportunities: New York’s Pataki Years, a survey of the career of the man Mr. Spitzer will replace, Republican Governor George Pataki. It’s hard to think why a Catholic press, whose list runs to Aquinas and Averroes, would devote a whole book to an American lame duck, unless they were interested in Catholic politicians who are pro-abortion; although there are so many of those, why pick on George Pataki? The author, however, is George Marlin, historian and stalwart of the New York Conservative Party (he ran for Mayor of New York City in 1993). The author picture shows him standing beside a reproduction of Holbein’s famous portrait of Sir Thomas More. Next to Mr. Marlin, the saint looks a bit easy-going. Mr. Marlin knows where the bodies are buried, and he exhumes them all.

George Pataki has been with us since he defeated Mario Cuomo in 1994. Mr. Marlin pays tribute to the Governor’s political talents—maybe not enough. Mr. Pataki had to fight his way through a crowd of Republican hopefuls, winning the approval of such disparate powers as Senator Al D’Amato, the kingmaker, and New York’s tiny but vocal conservative intellectual movement; then he had to win the approval of the voters. He threaded every needle, smooth as silk.

Then it was time to govern. Mr. Marlin, who is a banker when he is not writing books, focuses on economics. Governor-elect Pataki faced a $4 billion budget gap, which had been hidden by the Cuomo administration and left as a little surprise package. Nevertheless, in his first two years, he managed to pass two budgets lower than Mario Cuomo’s last, while cutting some taxes. If there is a hero in Mr. Marlin’s book, it is Patricia Woodworth, the budget director during this period. Even then, there were signs of trouble: To “Pataki insiders, ‘true believers’ were dangerous and never to be trusted …. Woodworth was suspect because she actually believed in the cause of downsizing government.” Midway through Mr. Pataki’s first term, re-election loomed and his fiscal discipline vanished. Why bother, since the Clinton market was rocking and rolling and tax receipts were pouring in? In 1998, one state finance watchdog gave New York an F for “relying on current good times continuing forever.”

Times have stayed pretty good in New York City, which has Wall Street through thick and thin, enhanced by the Giuliani/Bloomberg anti-crime wave. But the bad times have gripped upstate with an icy hand. State and local taxes (many of the latter mandated by Albany) are crushing; business is dying; people are fleeing. “The only growth north of Orange County,” Mr. Marlin notes, “has been in the prison population.”

Mr. Marlin sourly surveys other issues. On abortion, George Pataki is like Mario Cuomo, only without class. “Cuomo … genuinely struggled to rationalize a distinction between his duties as a practicing Catholic and his duties as a public servant …. Pataki has never revealed any philosophical soul-searching in determining his positions.” At Ground Zero, Mr. Pataki left a hole. “Such an undertaking required the vision, skills, and tenacity of a Robert Moses …. Pataki’s disengaged, ceremonial approach to management” couldn’t cut it. But Mr. Pataki has some accomplishments: He passed hate-crime legislation. “It is conceivable,” he said at the signing ceremony in 2000, “that if this law had been in effect one hundred years ago, the greatest hate crime of all, the Holocaust, could have been avoided.” SCENE: a disheveled office of some kind. Lugers, armbands, swastika flags. HITLER buttonholes GOERING, GOEBBELS. “ Gott in Himmel! Ve cannot burn ze synagogues or lynch ze pawnbrokers; it is verboten—by law!”

Along the way, Mr. Marlin speculates, not always ferociously, as to why George Pataki was so ineffectual. Most of his pre-gubernatorial career was spent in the State Assembly, in the impotent Republican minority. Assembly Republicans “had no responsibilities. Pataki never passed a meaningful piece of legislation affecting state-wide policy and never learned the processes of state government. As a result, he was accustomed to having the freedom to say anything he wanted in press releases. Because they had no impact on day-to-day governing, it just didn’t matter.”

Once he became Governor, he never reached out to fiscally conservative Democrats. “The administration never ‘schmoozed’ … suburban and upstate Democrats, never dined with them or drank with them.”

Mr. Marlin’s summary may be useful to Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers in 2008, if Mr. Pataki’s Presidential ambitions last so long. “George Pataki is not a Conservative. He isn’t even a real Republican. He’s not a Democrat or an Independent or a Right-to-Lifer or a Green.” He has belonged instead to “Albany’s dominant political party. He’s an Incumbocrat”—a party of three drunks: the Speaker of the Assembly (a Democrat), the Senate Majority Leader (a Republican), and the Governor (variable), holding each other up on the backs of the taxpayers.

George Pataki has left the New York G.O.P. in shambles. He has also stunted the New York Conservative Party—a point Mr. Marlin passes over in silence, no doubt out of respect for his Conservative friends and associates. In the resulting vacuum, the only political question in New York is: Who will roll up the larger margin—Eliot Spitzer or Hillary Clinton?

Let Mr. Pataki’s record be a caution to his successor. Mr. Spitzer has even less political and executive experience (he has been a prosecutor, a lawyer, and the State Attorney General). Will he be the censorious outsider that Albany needs? Or will he be taken for a ride?