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Searching for President Pataki


It was either optimistic (albeit empty) rhetoric or a coded pitch to Republicans outside New York.

Depending on your point of view, those were two of the most popular interpretations of Governor George Pataki's final State of the State address on January 4. Predicting Pataki's political future has become a popular pastime, and there was plenty in the speech to fuel that, though perhaps less than many pundits had expected.

For a presidential hopeful, the speech contained surprisingly little substance. If Pataki plans to run for the White House, it will need to be on the strength of his politics, not his policies. With his tepid State of the State address --- matched in its soporific quality only by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's response --- Pataki threw away one of his last big chances to use his bully pulpit to push for real change.

New York's seen better days. Job growth in the state is stagnant, as is population. Debt is soaring, while year-to-year finances are perched precariously on the edge of deficit. Our state government has been labeled the "most dysfunctional" in the nation, lacking even in some basic democratic reforms.

A bold agenda from the governor's office could be the first step to reverse a decline that began decades ago. And since he's not seeking reelection this November, Pataki's running out of time to spend any remaining political capital. But anyone naïve enough to expect Pataki's final address to include such a bold agenda went away disappointed.

The three-term governor dwelt on his political philosophy and talked up what he sees as his legacy in terms that were anything but specific. Sample quote: "The totality of our achievements over the past 11 years, the new course for New York that we charted back in 1995, has made New York a stronger, safer, cleaner, more prosperous state than it's been in generations."

Reform --- the Albany buzzword of last year --- apparently wasn't important enough to be worth discussing.

Of the few concrete proposals Pataki did offered, tax cuts topped the list. The estate tax and the "marriage penalty" would see their demise under his plan --- ending both is a cause célèbre among many national conservatives --- and property taxes would decrease. The AlbanyTimes-Union puts the price tag of those cuts at about $1 billion per year (with an estimated $700-800 million of that from the estate tax alone).

Pataki also spent significant time outlining an energy plan for the state that eschewed reliance on "expensive, polluting, terror-promoting foreign oil" in favor of ethanol and other renewable energy sources. Sounds great, but the plan's details left environmentalist less than thrilled, since they include the construction of power plants fueled by what the governor dubbed "clean coal."

Just a few hours after the address, Environmental Advocates of New York released a statement largely praising Pataki's environmental credentials, but condemning the coal plan.

"We're very disappointed that he's looking to build new coal plants in New York, and we'll fight any state or ratepayer money going to make that happen," wrote EANY's Christine Vanderlan in a follow-up email to City Newspaper.

And even the plan's architecture seems more political than practical; to accomplish his clean-energy goals, the governor's principal tools will be tax cuts for businesses that produce green-energy products.

Those cuts, along with the persistent speculation that Pataki plans to run for president in 2008, provided the political backdrop for the best pundit quote the speech generated.

"Pataki might think ethanol will win him farm votes in Iowa," GOP strategist Nelson Warfield told the Associated Press. "But when he's carrying the weight of his liberal views on abortion and gay rights, a boutique tax cut for alternative fuels won't put much in Pataki's tank for a presidential race."

Trying to divine Pataki's intentions as the Republican presidential primary approaches constituted the bulk of news coverage about the address. And perhaps that was by design. With little substantive material in the speech to analyze, reporters and pundits were forced to play the part of tealeaf readers, generating a buzz for a potential Pataki campaign in the process.

Reams have been written about the moderate governor's uphill battle in a primary supposedly dominated by party's conservative base (see McCain, John). Clearly Pataki's a long shot. But before writing him off, consider a couple of factors.

For starters, five years of a Bush administration haven't left the national Republican Party unscathed. Only the editorial page of the Gannett-owned Journal-News in Westchester seemed to notice a simultaneous event that may be good news for a Pataki campaign: the Jack Abramoff guilty plea.

While Pataki was deftly avoiding saying anything, the unscrupulous lobbyist was agreeing as part of a plea bargain to say all kinds of things about the power brokers he allegedly dealt with. That could spell serious problems for some among the party's conservative wing. Powerful players like Tom DeLay and Ralph Reed are rumored to be among the most worried about Abramoff's agreement to testify. Bill Frist isn't, but the presumptive early frontrunner has his own ethical problems.

Plus some Bush administration policies have alienated more moderate Republicans. If --- and this is a big if --- the Beltway GOP's travails are enough to seriously rend the party going into the primary campaign season, a moderate like Pataki could stand to benefit.

That seemed to be the opening the governor was aiming for when he opened his address outlining his belief in "active, but limited government." The quote got prominent play in a press release Pataki's office sent out later that day. The strategy seemed to work: the phrase made it into the lead of veteran AP political reporter Marc Humbert's State of the State article. Perhaps, with his socially moderate stances Pataki believes he can use the "active, but limited" formula to split the difference between hard-line conservatives --- whose support he'll need to win a primary --- and swing voters.

There's also another, probably better, explanation of Pataki's actions: He's really running for vice president, or a high-level administration position. Comparisons with Dick Cheney aside (the comb over, the crooked smile), Pataki has been considered veep material in the past. A good run in New Hampshire and Iowa (two states he's been visiting a lot lately) could propel him well into the media spotlight. Or at least far enough to be a serious choice for running mate, especially for a Southern or Western conservative looking to appeal to moderate swing voters in the Northeast.

Failing that, Pataki's relative popularity with environmentalists might land him a spot heading up an agency like the EPA (following in the footsteps of Christine Todd Whitman, another moderate Republican governor from a Northeast state: New Jersey). Or he might seek a cabinet appointment or diplomatic post: Paul Cellucci, yet another moderate Republican governor of a Northeast state (Massachusetts) became ambassador to Canada. If that's not a cushy patronage job, then such a thing doesn't exist.

Regardless of his intentions, don't count Pataki out of the presidential race yet, his tepid State of the State notwithstanding. With a 3-0 record against incumbents, the former Peekskill mayor turned obscure assemblyman and state senator turned upset winner of the 1994 governor's race has made a career out of being underestimated.