Pataki’s Road to Washington

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Eye from Albany
May 2003

Fact of the month: In the last 10 years, Europe has reduced emissions by 3%, while the United States has increased emissions by 21%.

Pataki’s Road to Washington
by Paul M. Bray

It is almost always the case that whoever is Governor of New York thinks about becoming President. The precedent of other Governors being elected President and the presence of media in New York City to flame the fire make the presidency the logical next step.

Even someone like former Governor Cuomo, who I believe was content and happy to be king of the hill in Albany, used the prospect of a run for the Presidency to inflate his own importance while diverting the public’s attention from the immediate problems of state governance. I doubt Cuomo ever really wanted to run for President but all the press attention on whether or not he was going to run (was he going to get on the airplane to New Hampshire to file for the primary made great reality theater) helped buoy his status in New York.

There can be little doubt that Governor Pataki whose ambition knows no limits would like to make the move to Washington and ultimately to the highest office in the land. The NY Times reported in March, “Ever since he was re-elected overwhelmingly… Governor George E. Pataki of New York has been talking and acting like a politician who has his sights set on Washington, according to strategists and lawmakers in both political parties”.

A scenario that takes Pataki to Washington is hard to fathom in light of the Bush administration turning out to be radically conservative. Pataki seems to have too many strikes against him including the aggressive public sector of his home state (anathema to fiscal conservatives) and his record on choice, gay rights and gun control (anathema to social conservatism). In addition, by all accounts Dick Cheney is firmly in position to run again for VP.

Yet, my crystal ball tells me there is a path that will get Pataki the VP
nomination in 2004. It all revolves around the environment and taxes (another twosome like death penalty and taxes that got Pataki elected governor). President Bush needs to hold on to the suburban electorate who are becoming unsettled by his environmental and unilateral foreign relations record. He also may want to show that his presidency is more than a regency.

Let us assume by mid-summer the economy does not show signs of a meaningful 2004 recovery, the state’s are not rebounding from the worst fiscal predicament in more than 50 years, terrorism continues to threaten and we are mired in Iraq. All this while the electorate remains sharply divided over the President’s overall performance. What is President Bush to do?

Starting with the environment, a good environmental record does not alone get one elected President, but a bad record on air and water quality and threats to despoil sacred areas like the Alaska wilderness can turn off middle and upper middle class suburban voters. Despite the most skillful PR campaign to soften the message of Bush’s environmental record, he clearly has gone over the line with his roll back of environmental laws and regulations. It is more than greens calling Bush “the most anti-environmental President in history”, it is unease of suburbanites about the air they breath, the water they drink and forests where they recreate that pose a threat to Bush at election time.

President Bush has lost his credibility on environmental issues in the same way his father lost it over “read my lips, no new taxes” when he did a 180 degree reversal dropping participation in the Kyoto treaty after promising to address climate change in the campaign. It is not going to be easy to get the environment off of Bush’s back.

Enter Governor Pataki and imagine the President calling him to Washington as he did with former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge to spearhead a transformational environment-business and globally friendly initiative for the 21st century ranging from reducing carbon emissions to fostering production of a new generation of environmental products. Once in Washington the vetting for the VP nomination will begin.

Pataki is an ideal candidate for the task as he has been able to play the
game of environmental politics to his great advantage even though his
environmental record is checkered. At the beginning of his first term as Governor, Pataki appeared to pay his debt to the corporate polluters that supported him by dismantling the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) environmental protection programs and the state’s energy conservation program. Environmental Advocates declared in 1996: “The deskilling of DEC (through firings and retirements) should be of the utmost concern to every New Yorker who understands the importance of a healthy environment to our quality of life.”

With that debt paid, Pataki then turned his attention to the doing good side of the environmental ledger proposing a clean water, clean air bond issue, crafting a plan for protecting the New York City watershed, replacing the much criticized for being “business friendly” DEC Commissioner Michael Zagata and setting targets for use of renewal energy sources. This won him the backing of the more upper crust environmental organizations like the New York League of Conservation Voters, at least enough so to give him the mantle of an environmental governor.

Pataki’s environmental record reflects a skill that is just what President
Bush needs going into 2004, the ability to dance on the head of the
environmental pin scoring the necessary environmental points to win over suburban voters while not making it difficult for business interests. If Bush gets over his tendency to flash his knee jerk “green lima bean” bias that environmental improvement comes only at the cost to economic interests, he could neutralize a significant liability as he goes for a second term. Pataki offers him an environmental icon and the skills of a politician that has mastered environmental politics.

Managing the social baggage that comes with a New York governor explains the Times column head “Pataki Takes Firmest Stand Against Higher Tax on the Rich”. Holding firm on taxation helps deflect the social baggage. Pataki’s stubbornness in opposition to any progressive state tax increase in a time of great budget deficits and cutbacks at the state and local level has put his popularity “into a free fall” within the state, but it plays well with a President determined to turn the federal tax system on its head and get rid of progressivity. Bush’s has demonstrated a “righteous distain for taxation” especially of the wealthy and Pataki is demonstrating what a great ally he can be.

As this column is written at the end of April, Pataki is facing down the
legislature by drawing a firm line against any tax targeting the wealthy and on limiting at least some of the legislative put backs of education and health cuts in his proposed budget. He might in the end go along with a sales tax increase, but not any income related tax.

Pataki’s political skills including his ability to stay on script, navigate
environmental issues, the 9/11 link and his holding the line on higher taxation of the rich may increasingly look attractive to the President. Of course for Pataki to get the gold/ the vice presidency, there are a lot of ifs: if the vice presidency is available because of Cheney’s health or Cheney’s sense that it is time for him to leave the Washington stage now that he scored his success in redressing the post Viet Nam culture and the failure to go after Saddam in 1991 or the possibility of a presidential desire to step out of Cheney’s shadow.

Whether or not you buy the aforementioned road map to Washington, one cannot lightly underestimate Governor George E. Pataki. In all likelihood he has something up his sleeve and the Republican convention will be in New York City close to the anniversary of 9/11.

(PS-Since I wrote this column Vice President Cheney announced that he would be on the ticket in 2004, if you believe that you must also believe the story of nuclear W.M.D.s in Iraq and that the the latest tax cut benefits “everyone who pays taxes”, etc.. Cheney’s announcement looks to me like a way to keep their options open as long as possible.)

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an environmental and planning law firm in Albany. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com and past columns can be found on www.braypapers.com.