Does George Pataki Seriously Think He Can Be President?

Out of office and the national spotlight for years, the three-term New York governor is still haunting New Hampshire and threatening a White House run—despite being seen as a joke.

02.20.15 10:15 AM ET

If the Republican presidential primary were a fantasy football league, what would the first round draft pick look like?

A track record of winning elections, preferably a bunch of them by large margins, sure. A governor for these anti-Washington times, yes. Hailing from a big state would be great, and a big Democratic state all the better. Ability to raise money? Check. Tall, likable, tested in crisis, and with an announced ambition for higher office—done, done, done, and done.

And yet, when that very candidate appeared in the person of George Pataki at a town hall at Keene State University in New Hampshire, there were not throngs of Republicans vying for a glimpse of the great new leader. A dozen or so people were sitting in the back of a room off the student union center, despite one faculty member telling the candidate’s aides that he offered extra credit in his film noir class if they showed up. The three-term former governor of New York had to exhort them to move to the front.

“Then I can’t sneak out the back,” replied one recalcitrant seat-mover.

After unfurling his 6-foot-5 frame into a leather chair in the front of the room and delivering a few remarks, Pataki opened the floor for questions.

“You are something of a second-tier kind of candidate,” said one attendee, in a long preface to a question about the Federal Reserve.

Pataki bolted upright.

“You are moving me up, then!”

The retort became a line the former governor would repeat at subsequent appearances (“And I said, ‘You are being too kind!’”), along with digressions about his own fandom of the Jets and Bills, historically two of the NFL’s most hapless franchises. (Never mind for the moment why Pataki couldn’t summon up fandom for the far more successful New York Giants.)

If Pataki had his druthers, nothing about the New Hampshire trip would be very widely known. While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie courts the national press, invites them to special briefings, and holds events closed to Trenton reporters, Pataki is treating the 2016 Republican primary as a purely local affair. His spokesman informed me a few weeks ago that Pataki only talks to New Hampshire press and then stopped returning calls. His office would not confirm that the governor would be in the state. When I showed up anyway, his spokesman said only, “I see you’ve found us.”

That reaction may be due in part to the seeming lack of enthusiasm for a Pataki candidacy outside New Hampshire. In a New York Daily News story on his potential bid, one political analyst called the notion “just beyond the pale” and suggested that the former governor must be high on drugs. Slate called Pataki’s efforts “the saddest campaign for president.” The hashtag #Patakimentum is a popular one on Twitter, usually attached to some wiseacre comment like “So Romney’s not running; this really opens the door for George Pataki,” as longtime political analyst Jeff Greenfield tweeted when Mitt Romney dropped out.

It is hard to fathom why even the possibility of a Pataki presidency is regarded as a joke. A long shot, to be sure, but a joke? Herman Cain, Michele Bachman, Mike Gravel—those were jokes. Pataki is a three-term governor of a major state. He has been out of office for a while, but no longer than Jeb Bush or Romney. Why won’t any smart-ass journalists take him seriously?

To hear his aides tell it, all the mirth is because Pataki has made this move before. He flirted with running for president in 2000 and then did the same in 2008 and 2012. This, too, has been worked into his pitch, with the governor joking that a Pataki flirtation is a quadrennial experience, like the Olympics or the World Cup.

But that doesn’t quite get at why Pataki fails to be taken seriously. He was something of a joke from the start. Back in 2004 New York magazine profiled the governor and couldn’t believe him even then. “Could he actually be thinking about running for president?” the piece asked.

Pataki has been underestimated before. He knocked out a Democratic incumbent to get to the state Assembly, and then knocked out a Republican incumbent to win his seat in the state Senate. He stayed one term, launched an improbable bid against Mario Cuomo, then won re-election twice more by 21 points (then one of the largest victories in state history) and 17 points, even as New York was trending Democratic.

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Had Pataki pulled a Romney and stopped after one term, he probably would have been a viable national politician. Instead, in order to remain in office, he cut deals with the state’s powerful labor unions and increased government spending to five times the rate of inflation.

Conservatives were furious. At a gala for the New York-based Conservative Party, William F. Buckley wondered aloud—with Pataki sitting next to him on the dais—“whether the only abortion law Governor Pataki would oppose would be one that threatened the rights of gays and lesbians.” City Journal called him “indistinguishable from a big government Democrat.”

The third term was considered a mostly listless affair, with Pataki seldom in Albany and out of the state most weekends. When at the end of his tenure Pataki saw a Broadway production of The Drowsy Chaperone, Albany wags wondered if it was autobiographical. Eliot Spitzer won by 40 points that November, and his victory was seen as a rebuke to Pataki, a feeling Spitzer reinforced in his inaugural address, in which he lit into the Pataki years, saying, “Like Rip Van Winkle…New York has slept through much of the past decade while the rest of the world has passed us by.”

“It’s not as if Pataki left office and then aggressively stayed on the national scene,” said Greenfield, when asked to explain his earlier tweet. “When he left, he wasn’t particularly popular, and then he just disappeared.”

Pataki has tried to stay relevant. He has created four super PACs, including RevereAmerica, which sent Pataki on a cross-country tour to gather petitions to repeal Obamacare in 2010; No American Debt, which began in 2011; Tipping Point, in 2012, which was dedicated to electing Republicans to Congress in New York but spent little more than $8,000 in the process; and Americans for Real Change, which began in 2014, stood for “Less Government. More Freedom,” and, according to federal data, spent approximately $0 on elections.

Pataki has also co-chaired a group started by casino magnate and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson devoted to stopping the rise of Internet gambling.

I asked a number of Republican strategists in the Empire State why it was that Pataki wasn’t taken seriously.

“He’s sort of a fuddy-duddy. He doesn’t come across as a real strong, decisive type of leader,” said one.

“He’s got the country lawyer in him. There just isn’t a lot of oomph to his message,” said another.

“He’s got that Jimmy Stewart, aw shucks thing,” added a third.

It is hard for many to believe that Pataki is running for president because he has some burning desire to run that he has been unable to quench. When has he evinced a burning desire for anything?

Still, it appears as if Pataki is actually running this time. He has set up yet another super PAC, this one called “We the People, Not Washington,” and unlike most candidates, he is running it himself. He has a full-time staffer in New Hampshire and according to sources is preparing to bring on former Marco Rubio staffer Brian Seitchik as campaign manager.

“I have to tell you,” said one member of the New York donor community. “If he is just doing this to become secretary of the interior or something, he is doing a really good job of fooling everyone into thinking that he is really running.”

Pataki wants term limits for lawmakers, lifetime bans on lobbying, and no pay for members of Congress unless they pass a budget. He doesn’t favor robust campaign finance reform, a good thing for a candidate trying to woo the Adelsons and David Kochs of the world. He talks a lot about 9/11 and terrorism. And he talks a lot to audiences about restoring American optimism, even as he paints a dreary picture of a nation besieged by armed radicals and drowning in debt.

Pataki believes there is a vast, untrammeled wilderness on the Republican side of the aisle for his kind of conservatism, while the entire rest of the field claws it out over a narrow piece of ideological turf. Pataki is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage; as governor he signed some of the strictest environmental and anti-gun regulations in the country. He is even pro-vaccination: “Everything must be science-based,” he told the crowd in Keene.

His campaign insists that New Hampshire, with its libertarian streak and primary where independents can vote in Republican primaries, is just such the place. And so he has held dozens of events in the state since November. This week alone he met with eight local elected officials and did three local radio interviews.

Does that mean he is really running this time? At the end of his bakery speech, after going through his bit about the Jets and the Bills, he told the crowd, “I very may well be a candidate down the road.”

The hedges in that sentence—“There is a chance I very well may decide to do something later”—don’t inspire a lot of confidence, but if Patakimentum is ever going to get off the ground, it will have to do.