The false pop­ulism of Ge­orge Pataki

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - JONAH GOLDBERG jgold­berg@la­times columnists.com

Ikeep think­ing we’re done with Ge­orge Pataki — but like an or­der of bad clams, he keeps com­ing back up on me. The three-term Repub­li­can gover­nor of a fa­mously blue state seems like a se­ri­ous 2016 pres­i­den­tial con­tender on pa­per — un­til you read the fine print.

Pataki had a promis­ing start as New York gover­nor. He beat Demo­cratic icon Mario Cuomo in 1994. He cut in­come taxes 25% and trimmed oth­ers as well. In his first two years in of­fice, spend­ing went down 2.5%.

If you had stopped the Pataki show there, ev­ery­thing would be great. Sim­i­larly, if Napoleon had quit be­fore in­vad­ing Rus­sia, he’d be re­mem­bered very dif­fer­ently too.

It’s a jour­nal­is­tic cliche to say that when a Repub­li­can lurches left he’s “grow­ing in of­fice.” Woodrow Wil­son once said that ev­ery politi­cian ei­ther grows or swells when he en­ters of­fice. Pataki did both and for so long, con­ser­va­tives felt he should have come with a Vi­a­gra-like warn­ing la­bel: If this apos­tasy lasts for more than one cam­paign, con­sult a physi­cian.

In ad­vance of his 1998 re­elec­tion bid, he asked the state leg­is­la­ture to in­crease spend­ing 8%. He flipflopped on end­ing rent con­trol in New York City, on block­ing the state takeover of Long Is­land Light­ing Co. and on send­ing his kids to public school. The de­fen­es­tra­tion of his prin­ci­ples was so spec­tac­u­lar, even the ed­i­tors of the New York Times were im­pressed. They en­dorsed him for re­elec­tion in 1998, prais­ing his “in­clu­sive and pro­gres­sive at­ti­tude.” The Cato In­sti­tute’s fis­cal re­port card dubbed Pataki a “lib­eral big spender.”

“Pataki-land has be­come a place that sells out on ev­ery­thing,” Ge­orge Mar­lin, a Pataki ap­pointee to the Port Author­ity of New York and New Jer­sey, told Na­tional Re­view’s John Miller in 2005. “The gover­nor is go­ing to leave the Repub­li­can Party in­tel­lec­tu­ally bank­rupt and the state fis­cally bank­rupt.”

When Pataki fi­nally left of­fice, New York Post state edi­tor Fred Dicker wrote that “Pataki broke vir­tu­ally ev­ery po­lit­i­cal prom­ise he ever made.” He also noted how in­cred­i­bly lazy Pataki was. Ac­cord­ing to friends, Pataki worked about 15 hours a week. “He held no more than three Cabi­net meet­ings dur­ing his en­tire 12 years in of­fice,” Dicker wrote.

It would be nor­mal for a three-term gover­nor to down­play his last two years as a lame duck in of­fice. Pataki plays the movie back­ward. The first two years are all he talks about, as if the fi­nal 10 never hap­pened.

That’s why his pop­ulist shtick rings so false. In his an­nounce­ment speech last week, he said that if elected pres­i­dent, “The first thing I would do is ban mem­bers of Congress from ever lob­by­ing. If you serve one day, you are banned, go home.” That sounds great, though how a pres­i­dent has the power to do any­thing of the sort is be­yond me.

He barked at Wash­ing­ton politi­cians, “From now on, you will live un­der the same rules and laws we do … no spe­cial rules for the pow­er­ful.” Again great stuff, but a bit hard to take from the guy who vowed to sell off New York state’s fleet of planes and then, once elected, used them as his pri­vate air­line.

I am try­ing hard not rule out any­one in the GOP field pre­ma­turely. So far, only Don­ald Trump has been too heavy a lift. Trump sees the pres­i­den­tial race as self­mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­nity, a way to ex­tend his run as a re­al­ity TV star. He’s a more plau­si­ble can­di­date than, say, Honey Boo Boo, but that’s mostly be­cause of con­sti­tu­tional age lim­its.

Pataki vexes me for sim­i­lar rea­sons. The pro-choice, lib­eral Repub­li­can has vir­tu­ally no chance of get­ting the nom­i­na­tion. But lots of peo­ple run as van­ity projects. I wish they wouldn’t, but it’d be un­fair to sin­gle Pataki out for it.

But most van­ity can­di­dates also tend to run to pro­mote their core con­vic­tions. For in­stance, many be­lieve South Carolina Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham is run­ning so he can de­bate for­eign pol­icy.

Pataki is flip­ping that on its head too. He’s pre­tend­ing to have core con­vic­tions just so he can run for the sake of run­ning.

Dar­ren McCollester Getty Images

EX-NEW YORK Gov. Ge­orge Pataki wants to be pres­i­dent.

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