Pataki for President!

by Michael Sean Winters

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Distinctly Catholic endorses George Pataki for President. Why not? Or should we wait to see what other really exciting candidates jump into the race. John Bolton anyone? Or, we could vote with our hearts and back former neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, a man whose qualification for the White House appears to be his truly remarkable ability to utter pious platitudes in a heartfelt way.

The 2016 GOP race is making the 2012 race look comparatively sane in retrospect. I did not think it was possible to get stranger than Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann, but here we are, with twice as many candidates – twice the fun! – already in the race or soon to be declaring their belief that their life story and skill set and ideas make them the best qualified person in the land to serve as president.

Of course, some of the candidates know they have little chance and are probably seeking to boost their speaking fees or get a show on Fox News. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee turned his 2008 presidential run into a medium-sized punditry business, and apparently his business was getting a little slow, because he is back in the race too.

In fairness to Pataki, winning the governorship of New York State three times in a row is no small accomplishment. The man beat Mario Cuomo, albeit by stoking resentment over Cuomo’s opposition to the death penalty and in a year, 1994, when Democrats got clobbered. His tenure as governor was unimpressive, typical moderate GOP fare: lower taxes here, smaller outlays for social programs there, he is pro-choice and wishy-washy on gay issues so no explosions on the social issues front. In the aftermath of 9/11 he was the guy always standing just over Rudy Giuliani’s shoulder, with the almost visible thought bubble above his head, containing the words, “Will this guy ever surrender the microphone?”

The Republicans have a problem this year, and it is not the fact that they have so many candidates running. The problem is that enough of those candidates, at least half a dozen, may be able to stay in the race even if they do not win any key primaries. Back in 2004, I was working on a presidential campaign and, when it became obvious our chances were evaporating, I asked a colleague when the candidate would get out of the race. “Every campaign ends for the same reason,” he replied. “Because you do not have enough money to hire the plane the next day. Until that point, you never know when the tables will turn or your opponent will slip on a banana peel, so you stay in.” The changes in campaign finance rules that flowed from Citizens United however, make it likely that some candidates need only have a constituency of one, provided he or she is really rich, to keep hiring the plane the next day. All the top tier candidates have Super PACs and, presumably, can survive a slew of second or third place finishes. Provided no single candidate continues to take the top spot multiple times in a row, there is no reason for the other candidates to drop out.

The geography of the presidential nominating system is designed to make a candidate demonstrate broad appeal in different parts of the country. Iowa is dominated by social conservatives, so Rick Santorum won the caucus there last time round. (A note about how unforeseen events can alter the race: On election night, Iowa was close but Romney had the slimmest of leads and his “win” there propelled him forward. A couple of weeks later, it became clear that Santorum had actually won. If the country had known that Santorum had won on election night, the whole trajectory of the race might have been different.) New Hampshire is the least churched state in the country, with a strong secular libertarian streak and a miserliness about government spending that is astounding. Then, on to Nevada and South Carolina, both of which are different from each other and both are also vastly different from Iowa or New Hampshire. Normally, those four early contests winnow the field before the Super Tuesday contests where large states go to the polls. This year, the results may be very diffuse and the field might be winnowed from 16 to 6, but not from 6 to 2. Midway through the primaries, if there are still half a dozen candidates, the GOP faces the prospect that keeps party chair Reince Priebus up at night: a brokered convention.  

The last contested convention for either party was 1980, when President Jimmy Carter narrowly fended off a challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy. For the Republicans, the last time there was actual drama about who the nominee would be was in 1976, when Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully challenged President Gerald Ford. Those were contested conventions, in which two candidates were closely matched, and it was a race to see who could get past the magic number of delegates needed to secure the nomination. A brokered convention is something different. That is when several candidates have twenty or twenty-five percent of the delegates, and they must horse trade to get a majority. Or, one candidate has about 45% of the delegates, but the other candidates form an alliance to keep that candidate from making his plurality into a majority, and put forward a compromise amongst themselves, or a dark horse whom they can all live with. In 1952, no one anticipated that Adlai Stevenson would be the Democratic nominee until they heard his welcoming speech, and then the leading candidates did not seem so attractive. In 1924, the Democratic convention requires 103 ballots before selecting a nominee.

There is a less chaotic alternative. Let’s all rally around Pataki now. Who cares that during a recent episode of “Jeopardy” none of the three contestants could identify his photo. We have had enough of jeopardy. Plodding, unexciting, not even very recognizable: Pataki in 2016.





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