With an approval rating rocketing above 80 percent after September 11, New York governor George Pataki seemed well placed not only to win reelection this fall but also to repair his badly dented reputation in the national Republican Party. Once considered a possible running mate for George W. Bush, Pataki had made himself radioactive to the national party by embracing bad policies intended to buy him political support on New York’s Left, the worst being a deal cut in 2000 with health-care union boss Dennis Rivera that dramatically swelled New York’s already engorged Medicaid costs. But in the days following the terrorist attack, as his popularity soared, all seemed forgiven: President Bush invited him to attend his historic presidential address to the joint session of Congress; there was even talk of a big federal appointment.
True to form, however, Pataki soon squandered the goodwill he briefly won. The first sour note came in October, when the governor dumped a whopping $54 billion post–September 11 aid request on the Bush administration, including pleas for funds to build a high-speed rail between Gotham and upstate, and billions to replace local tax revenues that might dry up because of the terror attack. Just days before making this brazen request—with post–September 11 realities clearly before him—Pataki had approved a new state budget that actually raised spending, in a damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead spirit.
After the aid plea met with incredulity in Washington, Pataki tried a different tack: he lobbied for hundreds of millions of federal dollars to support the state’s Medicaid program, claiming that September 11 caused an economic slump that has strained every state’s Medicaid budget, New York’s included, so federal help is crucial. But of course, New York’s Medicaid program is hurting more than those of other states because, already by far the most lavish and wasteful in the nation, it became even more so after the governor’s 2000 deal with union boss Rivera. A properly skeptical Washington is unlikely to sign on.
Pataki’s over-the-top aid requests have embarrassed President Bush. By putting the president in the politically awkward position of rejecting New York’s petitions, Pataki has opened him up to sniping from the New York Times and other liberal press critics, who charge that he’s not doing enough to help New Yorkers after September 11.
Yet, even as the aid debate raged, Pataki further alienated national Republicans by announcing at an AFL-CIO convention that he’d be the first U.S. governor to sign an anti-business bill legalizing “card check” union registration, making it much easier for labor to organize workers at workplaces not covered by federal labor law, such as small businesses and church-run hospitals and schools. Thanks to the new law, a union rep can now just hand around a dues-deduction card to non-unionized workers in such workplaces; if a simple majority signs the card, the union is in, without having to go through the long and often nasty balloting process that unionization usually requires. Pataki’s bill will drive up the already astronomical cost of doing business in New York and put pressure on other governors to follow his lead. Pataki’s incessant quest for union votes has confirmed to many prominent Republicans that he lacks an ideological compass.
It has been a remarkably inept performance, sure to sink any aspirations Pataki may have had for a major role in the national party. All for a few votes from the Left that, given the governor’s current popularity, probably will prove superfluous come November.