As Pataki Turns: Could This Be It for George?

The late humorist Fred Allen wasn’t thinking of Albany when he entitled his memoirs Treadmill to Oblivion. But the phase neatly describes the experience of recent New York Governors who saw the state’s executive mansion on Eagle Street as a roadside motel and another, more glamorous residence on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue as their final destination.

George Pataki, more than halfway through his third term and seemingly no closer to national prominence than he was a decade ago, evidently hasn’t given up on the notion that he may yet find something other than a nice pension awaiting him when his time in Albany has run its course. If so, he would shatter recent precedent. No sitting New York Governor since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 has won national office. Some have tried (Thomas Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller); some were mentioned, and mentioned, and mentioned again (Mario Cuomo); and some seemed ready if asked (Hugh Carey). Only Mr. Rockefeller was able to move–albeit indirectly—into national office, but his appointment to succeed Gerald Ford as Vice President in 1974 was more like an award for lifetime achievement than an earned prize.

Nevertheless, the 59-year-old Mr. Pataki, a moderate Republican from a blue state, persists in believing that the past need not be prologue. Although his poll ratings are at their lowest level and the Pataki family has been on the wrong side of recent tabloid headlines, the Governor and his allies see before them unexplored terrain and exciting possibilities, and not the same scenery they saw two years ago, and two years before that.

A flurry of fresh rumors have Mr. Pataki declining a fourth term next year in order to prepare for the Presidential campaign that some of his aides and loyalists have been promising for years. New York 1, the cable news outlet, reported on March 30 that Pataki aides were saying the Governor won’t run for re-election next year, and that Mr. Pataki is thinking about a Presidential campaign in 2008.

Then again, there’s no shortage of chatter containing unspecified threats that Mr. Pataki will in fact attempt a fourth term in 2006, and so achieve what he famously denied Mr. Cuomo in 1994.

In any case, decisions must be made, and soon. Mr. Pataki has said that he would announce his future plans by June of next year, but that wouldn’t leave much time for Republicans to find an heir should he renounce his incumbency.

Mr. Pataki has been Governor for a decade, and what is true of dogs is also true of sitting Governors–10 years is a long time. Sometimes 10 years can seem like 70. When Mr. Pataki became Governor in 1995, Republicans also held the Attorney General’s office, a U.S. Senate seat and the county executive’s office in politically powerful Westchester and Nassau. Most of the Long Island Congressional seats were in Republican hands, and the party had a firm grip on the State Senate.

In the years since, there are no Republicans in statewide office except the Governor (and his lieutenant, Mary Donohue); Peter King is the only surviving Republican Congressman from Long Island; and the party will have to fight as never before to retain the State Senate next year.

A dozen years ago, a freshman State Senator from Westchester decided that the public had tired of the incumbent Governor, and that the Governor was ripe for the taking if he made the mistake of running for a fourth term. That State Senator was George Pataki, and the Governor was Mario Cuomo, whose seemingly inevitable campaign for President never materialized.

Mr. Pataki was barely known in his district, never mind statewide. Mr. Cuomo was among the nation’s most famous national figures. But Mr. Cuomo now practices law, and has since his defeat at Mr. Pataki’s hands in 1994.

As Mr. Pataki contemplates his next move–re-election? A Presidential campaign? That long-rumored cabinet post? A gilded semi-retirement?–he surely remembers the calculations he made in 1993, when Mr. Cuomo was preparing for another term. But at this stage in Mr. Cuomo’s third term, no prominent Republican had risen to challenge him. The party’s stars eventually would pass on the challenge, leaving it to the seemingly quixotic George Pataki.

But if Mr. Pataki, like Mr. Cuomo, does decide to run for a fourth term, he will face Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, whose fame surpasses his own. And if Mario Cuomo couldn’t beat George Pataki in 1994, how in the world can George Pataki expect to beat Elliot Spitzer in 2006?

A Loser?

“Everything, from poll numbers to political observations, suggests that he is a loser if he runs again,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. But, Mr. Carroll pointed out, history is George Pataki’s friend, not his enemy. “He has never lost,” he said. “That’s the thing about him–he’s never lost a race for anything.”

Nothing, except the most recent poll by Mr. Carroll’s employer. A Quinnipiac University poll in February showed Mr. Pataki losing to Mr. Spitzer, 54 to 30 percent. Mr. Pataki’s job disapproval rating was 49 percent, the highest it’s never been. “He’s not strong upstate, he’s no better than even in the suburbs, and of course he’s nowhere in the city,” said Mr. Carroll.

That’s a trifecta no statewide politician would want to play, and few observers seem to believe he will. At the moment, however, nobody knows for sure what’s next for Mr. Pataki. On March 30, as the state Capitol buzzed with talk that Mr. Pataki had decided against a fourth term, the Governor replied with an amiable non-answer. “I’ve always believed if you care about people and you love the state that you’re leading, it is the greatest job you can have,” he said.

His closest aides say that concerns about career moves take a back seat to the business at hand in Albany, where the Governor and state legislative leaders are grimly focused on bringing in the first on-time state budget in 20 years.

“It’s pretty obvious and fairly clear–he is very much focused on the budget,” said Michael McKeon, a political consultant and former spokesman for Mr. Pataki. “What he decides to do will be the product of discussions he has with his family and advisors post-budget.”

Some observers are suggesting that Mr. Pataki has his eyes not on the Republican Presidential nomination–a tough sell for a pro-choice, pro-gay-rights moderate from New York–but on the party’s Vice Presidential nod. But that still begs the question of what comes next. “If you’re out of office, it’s hard to be a potential Vice President,” said Mr. Carroll. While that is generally the case, neither George H.W. Bush nor Dick Cheney held elective office when they became the Republican Vice Presidential nominees in 1980 and 2000, respectively.

If Mr. Pataki decides that his ambitions require not retirement from Albany but a fourth term, he will have to take an extraordinary gamble. If he runs for a fourth term and loses to Mr. Spitzer in 2006, it’s hard to imagine that he will be taken seriously as a national candidate in 2008.

But, on the other hand, if he takes a pass and Mr. Spitzer wins a resounding victory against an unprepared replacement and a demoralized Republican Party, he may get the blame for the ensuing disaster.

“What’s interesting about George Pataki is that nobody in New York takes him seriously,” said Mr. Carroll. “They say, ‘How could he have national ambitions?’

“But then, how do you get to be President these days? You become a governor.”

Then again, that’s what they said about Mario Cuomo. And Nelson Rockefeller. And Tom Dewey.

–Additional reporting by Ben Smith As Pataki Turns: Could This Be It for George?