DOVER, New Hampshire -- I had only barely disembarked from the golf cart ferrying me from a field-cum-parking lot to the Strafford County Republican Picnic and Family Day when a woman in full Indian garb approached with a tomahawk. Would I like to learn to throw it?
"Do I need that kind of protection here?" I asked. The answer was lost in the boom of the Revolutionary War militia re-enactors' cannon, a cacophony that left my heart and stomach quarreling over the space at the top of my throat. A couple colonialists in the makeshift loyalist encampment mimed hand gestures suggesting next time I should cover my ears.
At first blush, this hardly seems famously moderate New York Governor George Pataki's natural audience. In the tent housing the raffle prizes there were more people fingering Christmas decorations with a patriotic bent and Spychips: How Major Corporations and the Government Plan to Track Your Every Move than the lonely copy of Christie Todd Whitman's It's My Party, Too. One man sashayed through the tent wearing a T-shirt that read, "I'd Rather Hunt with Dick Cheney than Ride with Ted Kennedy."
The fish out of water scenario seemed to be confirmed as two black SUVs pulled up and Pataki walked by into the farmhouse. Strafford County GOP Chair Charlie Reynolds told the crowd, "There goes the Governor. Don't worry. He'll be back." No one seemed particularly concerned. Shortly thereafter, Pataki followed an uncharacteristically fiery speech by New Hampshire Congressman Jeb Bradley with a lame call and response: "I have a simple question for you: Do we have any Republicans here this afternoon?" A smattering of polite applause. "No, wait, let me try this again. Do we have any Republicans here this afternoon?" Anyone present who wasn't a Republican just gave $20 to the Strafford County GOP, but there was louder applause anyway as the sunlight glinted off the Strafford County Republicans Welcome George Pataki sign in the background.
Ironically enough, it was two huge explosions of cannon fire that saved the uber low-key Pataki.
"You know, just twenty miles away there all those thousands of Democrats protesting President Bush" -- the President last weekend was at his parents' place in Kennebunkport, Maine, where the AP and Washington Post put the number of protesters at 700 or so -- "but we have the New Hampshire militia here to protect us here so we're safe," Pataki said, eliciting hoots, hollers, and cheers from the crowd. "Three or four members of a militia are enough to take care of 20,000 of those Democratic protesters."
Too bad the militia wasn't in New Hampshire two weeks ago when Pataki confused the Granite State with Vermont. Nevertheless, once Pataki and the cannon crew had the crowd's attention, things went swimmingly. Much better, in fact than one might presume of a moderate in a lion's den of rock-ribbed conservatism.
IT'S REALLY NOT ALL THAT DIFFICULT to tell grassroots activists of any stripe what they want to hear. They are, by nature, vocal about their philosophies and goals. It's wooing swing voters without upsetting the grassroots that's the real trick. (Although, after six years of George W. Bush we can probably safely say it's not all that tricky.) Thus, Pataki sidestepped social issues where his liberal stance might get him into trouble, steering instead toward safer Republican environs by praising Abraham Lincoln, the Founding Fathers and fiscal discipline while pooh-poohing activist judges, illegal immigrants and MoveOn faux rebels. The cherry on top was no shocker. "As he often did," Pataki said, "Ronald Reagan put it best when he said, 'We are a people that has a government and not the other way around.'"
Much like most governors seeking the presidency, the guts of Pataki's speech was a bad news/good news description of how despite liberal obstinacy he transformed New York into a Free Market Garden of Eden.
"If any of you doubt the consequences of not having Republicans in power, all you have to do is visit New York State," Pataki intoned darkly. "We had a twenty-year unfettered experiment in liberal Democratic Big Government. By any objective standard it was a failure."
According to Pataki, pre-Pataki New York had the highest tax burden in America, was "dead last in jobs" as employers fled a capital sucking vampire of a state with a $5 billion deficit, the lowest credit rating in the nation (tied with Louisiana -- go Cajuns!) and one out of every eleven citizens on welfare. George Pataki showed up with a huge pair of golden scissors and, inter alia, cut income taxes, especially on low income workers, cut welfare rolls by more than a million, cut state employment rolls by 25,000, cut taxes on beer...all of which turned deficit to surplus and the worst credit rating to highest the state has had in 30 years.
There are, however, dissenters, if not on the substance of these claims, then certainly with regard to consistency. Last year National Review ran a story entitled "The GOP's Pataki Problem," wherein John J. Miller opined Pataki's "tenure as the Empire State's chief executive began with incredible promise -- but its legacy almost certainly will be one of squandered opportunity, shrunken ambition, and conservative disappointment." In a 2005 Cato Institute analysis Stephen Moore and Stephen Slivinski wrote, "After enacting substantial cuts in spending and taxes in his first term, Pataki subsequently allowed New York's budgets to grow too rapidly, and he besmirched his tax cut record by proposing and signing into law large tax increases." More recently, the Manhattan Institute's E.J. McMahon noted, "the state funds spending hike (excluding federal grants) for fiscal 2007 is the second largest Pataki has proposed in his 12 years as governor."
"You shouldn't tell people, 'Don't worry, government will provide,'" Pataki nonetheless told New Hampshire activists in his best Father Republican voice. "You should tell people, 'Get a job, work, develop your skills, and you can be a part of the American dream.'"
Can you tell he's not running for Governor of New York anymore?
UNSURPRISINGLY, PATAKI IS BULLISH on the War on Terror, Democrats' "negativity" and crediting Republican support for the Patriot Act and eavesdropping programs for creating a situation where "we have never been attacked since Sept. 11, while the rest of the world has."
Without mentioning Rudy Giuliani, key points in Pataki's speech seem meant to steal the former New York City Mayor's thunder. (Social moderates do not want to split the primary vote.) First, on the tough-on-crime front -- "When I took office, we started arresting the root causes of violent crime, convicting the root causes of violent crime, and putting them behind bars for long periods of time" -- and then with a first person account of shunning his security detail's insistence that he leave Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 for his Albany command center so he could let people know "their government was functioning and was going to protect them so they would not be afraid of what might happen in the future." Then came the requisite relaying of the Larger Meaning of It All: "I went to lower Manhattan to reassure the people," Pataki said. "I came from lower Manhattan reassured by the people."
TOWARD THE END OF HIS SPEECH, Pataki has a decent laugh line laying out "neutral, objective proof that our policies work for everyone." He imagines the thinking behind the decision of a "certain prominent couple" to move to New York, rather than his home state of Arkansas or her home state of Illinois, and concludes, "Bill and Hillary Clinton voted with their feet for Republican policies."
Well, let's not go too crazy on the New York-as-a-conservative-Mecca tip. In the middle of the bit, however, another two ear shattering explosions came out of the militia camp just as Pataki was noting how the former First Family could have gone to Hollywood to be with Barbra Streisand and pals.
"I mention Barbra Streisand and the cannon goes off," Pataki joked.
Now if the Governor could only create his own big bang, he'd really be getting somewhere.
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