Presidential Itch

George Pataki in Newport, New Hampshire.  2/3/15
George Pataki in Newport, New Hampshire. 2/3/15

George Pataki has an itch and he’s going to scratch it.  A presidential itch, that is.  A veteran of many presidential flirtations, Pataki is running hard in the early rounds of the 2016 presidential race, repeatedly visiting New Hampshire.

His candidacy elicits eye rolls among many New Yorkers, a product of his multiple past unconsummated presidential flirtations, his laconic presence and limited political visibility since leaving office eight years ago.  While his prospects are virtually nil, Pataki’s effort is real and may produce something for him.  It’s hard to predict precisely what that something may be, although it’s not going to be the Republican nomination for president.

I was present for three campaign stops on Pataki’s two-day New Hampshire visit this week.  (I also reported on his January visit to New Hampshire.)  Pataki gamely charged ahead with stops that included a pizzeria in Newport, a town hall at Keene State College and a dinner in Keene with the Chesire County Republican committee.  All three had what can most generously described as modest-sized audiences; 8 or 9 people at the pizzeria and about 20 people each at the two Keene stops. His events attracted some New Hampshire press attention, however, and he also had a Fox News appearance Wednesday afternoon live from New Hampshire.

With the New Hampshire primary just over a year away it’s very early, even for the primary-loving New Hampshire electorate.  All of the people I’ve spoken with at Pataki events say that it’s too early for a commitment to any candidate and they appear to be the classic New Hampshire paradigm; extremely interested voters who want to personally meet and talk with many or all candidates before committing to one. With more time than money, Pataki’s ambition has its best chance in such a setting.  He seemed to connect okay with the small groups I witnessed, holding their attention although not eliciting any visible support.  With all three groups he included some Patriots pandering, first mentioning that he’s a Jets fan and then tracing his fandom to being an AFC fan and therefor happy to root for the Patriots in a Jets and Bill-free playoff season.  These rounds of Patriot pandering didn’t win him primary votes, but they did inject some energy into the audiences.

George Pataki at a pizzeria in Newport, NH.  2/3/15
George Pataki at a pizzeria in Newport, NH. 2/3/15

Pataki readily embraces his long odds, often referencing his 1994 surprise victory over Mario Cuomo.  When a Keene State audience member began a question by saying “with all due respect sir, … you’re something of a second tier candidate”, Pataki replied with a laugh: “you’re moving me up here.”  He then proudly recounted the episode to the audience at his next stop.

Pataki’s campaign theme is best described as opportunistic.  He plays to the right, but veers back towards the middle periodically.  He’s an unusual combination of having an extensive record, with more than 20 years in elective office, but being a contemporary blank slate, having been out of office for eight years and largely staying out of political sight during that period.  That combination produces some nice sounding but contradictory positions.  He’s firmly against the government “picking winners and losers”, yet he proudly describes his efforts while governor at spending more than $1 billion of taxpayer money to build a computer chip factory for a single company.  He opposes President Obama’s recent proposal to provide free community college across the country but touts a program during his governorship that forgave student debt for SUNY science graduates (nicely combining “free stuff” and “picking winners and losers”).  He supports increased disclosure of campaign contributions, including instantaneous (or close to instantaneous) online disclosure of campaign contributions.  Unmentioned are his many fundraising/disclosure battles, both as governor and more recently.  He also criticized “super PACS” as allowing political attacks with “no accountability”, urging that all such spending be legally required to go through the relevant campaign.  Pataki?  He has a super Pac, of course, which is funding his current New Hampshire visits.  (He carefully describes himself as considering a presidential candidacy, so that he can remain engaged with his super PAC.)

George Pataki at a town hall meeting on the campus of Keene State College.  2/3/15
George Pataki at a town hall meeting on the campus of Keene State College. 2/3/15

Pataki has harsh criticism for President Obama, although his view also encompasses a strong anti-Washington theme that at times transcends party.  Having named his super PAC “We The People, Not Washington”, Pataki describes the federal government as “too big to succeed” and pledges a 15% reduction in its size.  Asked what he would do to begin a term as president, Pataki pledged to “sign an executive order repealing all of Obama’s executive orders” and “begin by restoring the rule of law.” He’s for a lifetime lobbying ban for former members of congress, frequently citing “400” who are currently registered lobbyists.  He also expressed disappointment at Congressional Republicans’ failure to set forth an alternative to Obamacare.  He calls for attacking ISIS forcefully, harshly criticizing Obama for “passivity in the face of aggressive terror”, but he also denounces the Bush administration’s efforts at “trying to nation build” and “spending a trillion dollars trying to … create a democracy in a place where none has existed.”

George Pataki speaks at a dinner hosted by the Chesire County Republican Committee in Keene, NH.  2/3/15
George Pataki speaks at a dinner hosted by the Chesire County Republican Committee in Keene, NH. 2/3/15

This is Pataki’s last plausible chance to run.  He’s 69 and at 71 on January 20, 2017, he would be the oldest president ever inaugurated.  Hoping for a better chance in four or eight years simply isn’t possible for Pataki.  On the plus side, he appears vigorous and in good health, and cultural expectations around older Americans working have certainly expanded.  We’re on our third consecutive young president, however, and its unclear whether America is ready for a president 20-25 years older.

His odds are long, with many better known and better financed Republicans lining up for the primaries.  If you squint hard enough it’s possible to begin to imagine Pataki as a plausible vice presidential candidate, perhaps paired with a young firebrand like Ted Cruz.  But even the hardest squint can’t blur a showstopper – abortion.  It’s unfathomable that the Republican party would select a presidential or vice presidential candidate who is, or at least was, pro-choice.  It’s unclear whether Pataki really believes that such a selection is possible, but it seems likely that his goal is less lofty.  A respectable primary showing would be a victory for Pataki, providing a path for a return to political relevancy in a new Republican administration.

N.B. – Update:  Here’s an extended outline of positions Pataki expressed during these campaign events.