Catching Pataki Fever

In the search for completely implausible, unelectable Republican presidential candidates, why stop at George Pataki?

Former New York State Governor George Pataki in 2010. Click image to expand.
George Pataki

George Pataki is thinking about running for president. He’s thinking about it, and thinking about it some more. He was “definitely considering it” in June. On Tuesday, as he planned a trip to Polk County, Iowa, it was a “strong possibility.”

The first natural instinct is to think of Pataki as the former New York governor whose star peaked the day he was elected. (He beat Mario Cuomo, and few saw it coming.) Pataki is the inspiration for countless disappointed jeremiads from conservative economists who wondered what the point of his reign was if he wasn’t going to cut spending. President? Pataki?

Sure, why not? The mystery of the 2012 Republican primary is not why someone like Pataki would enter it. The mystery is why he wouldn’t. If you’re a Republican politician, you should pull up three pieces of information. The first is President Obama’s approval rating: It’s terrible. The second is a reliable projection for GDP and job growth through 2012: just as bad, or worse. The third is a poll of the primary field, in which no one has more than a 2-point or 3-point advantage.

This is why someone who last made news as the man grimacing purposefully at Rudy Giuliani’s press conferences is still thinking about a run. It’s why conservative intellectuals, burned by Paul Ryan and Mitch Daniels and Jeb Bush and their other wonky heroes, keep begging them to jump in to the race. That’s all the evidence we need: It’s time to expand this field.

John Engler, 62

Last-held office: Governor of Michigan.

Pros: If we’re going to be rehabilitating governors who were big deals in the 1990s, why not this guy? Engler won the governor’s mansion three times, twice by landslides. He left office with far more conservative cred than Pataki did: charter schools! Welfare reform! One of those AAA bond ratings that people seem to care about! When he left office, unemployment in the state was 6.3 percent; under his Democratic successor, that rate has more than doubled. He fits the Daniels/Pataki mold of being objectively boring, and the Chris Christie mold of being out of shape. And he’s spent his retirement years flacking for the private sector, currently at the Business Roundtable—a role that occasionally leads to heretical statements about government spending, but still, better than working for Obama.

Cons: He endorsed George W. Bush in 2000, and promised to help him win the state’s open primary. John McCain ran over Bush, then backed the car over him a few times until the crunching noises stopped. This is not a moment that speaks well of Engler’s ability to win things.

Alan Simpson, 79

Last-held office: Senator from Wyoming.

Pros: In Fed Up!, his pre-campaign policy book, Rick Perry says that “only former senators” make it onto spending-cutting commissions, because they have nothing to lose. Here’s your proof. Simpson co-chaired the president’s deficit commission, which came up with a plan so good that everyone in Washington praises it while finding ways not to vote for it. He’s the only noncandidate who’s been endorsed for a fantasy campaign by Tom Friedman, which has to be worth something. And he’s the most quotable man in politics who’s not named “Barney Frank.”

Cons: He’s the most quotable man in politics who’s not named “Barney Frank.”

Jennifer Carroll, 51

Current office: Lieutenant Governor of Florida.

Pros: You think the second-ranking job in a megastate isn’t impressive? What if the Republican who holds the job is a 1) female 2) black 3) Navy veteran who 4) owned a small business before she got into politics? The Republican convention will be in Florida next year, which gives her the chance to swoop in and become the savior of a brokered mess. And what do Republicans like more than black conservatives who discredit all the mean things Democrats say about them? Nothing.

Cons: She was also 5) born in Trinidad. Scratch that.

Colin Powell, 74

Last-held office: Secretary of State.

Pros: Sooner or later, one of the people Bill Kristol endorses for president has to make the leap. If it can’t be Ryan, or Daniels, or Rubio, or McCain, why not one of the most popular Americans in public life?

Cons: Endorsed Obama in 2008. Shades of Jon Huntsman.

Tan Parker, 40

Current office: State Representative for Texas’$2 63rd district.

Pros: Pitted against a “generic Republican,” Obama would lose the 2012 election. Parker is the first person who comes up on Google when you search for “Republican state representative” and skip past the ones who are only famous for sex scandals.

Cons: There are already two Texans in the race. Also, there may be a more generic candidate who has also managed to stay off of Google, showing real mastery of the generic arts.

Sarah Palin (as seen in The Undefeated), 47

Last-held office: Governor of Alaska.

Pros: Once upon a time there was a brave and brilliant reporter and mom who out-hustled corrupt politicians and got elected mayor of a small town, then governor of Alaska. She had the highest approval rating of any state executive. She pushed through a reform of the state’s oil-tax laws, past the party’s establishment and past the best efforts of the mighty industry. All of this was done to a booming soundtrack and lots of file footage of protests and things exploding. She was on track to win the vice presidency before the economic crisis hit and the media treated her so unfairly.

Cons: Not many people saw the movie; most other people have soured on the real-world Palin.

David Koch, 71

Current role: Featured player in liberal nightmares.

Pros: One of the wealthiest men in the world, worth at least $17.5 billion, is also one of the men who made the conservative counterrevolution and the Tea Party possible. No one on the right doubts that Koch fully understands how markets work, or that Obama can destroy America if you let him. Koch has political experience, too—he was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1980. He spent $2 million on that campaign. It was just a bad year to be a right-wing candidate not named Ronald Reagan.

Cons: The “Human Origins” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, funded in part by Koch, claims that man-made climate change is happening. That may be impossible to get past in a Republican primary.

Tom “Terrific” Morrison, age unknown

Current office: Governor of an unnamed state.

Pros: A military veteran, businessman, governor, and non-Mormon who, in Mark “Anonymous” Salter’s novel O, is probably able to defeat Obama. (The book ends on election night.)

Cons: He’s fictional. Also, no one actually read that book unless they had to. I’m pretty sure this is the first reference anyone has made to it in six months.

Tim Pawlenty, 50

Last-held office: Governor of Minnesota.

Pros: A young, dynamic rising star in the GOP, who won re-election in an awful year (2006) and has a nearly spotless conservative record. He was on John McCain’s V.P. shortlist. He’s an evangelical who can dodge Mitt Romney’s religious problems, attract the sort of voters who backed Huckabee in 2008, and not scare off centrists. If any “Sam’s Club Republican” can win this thing, it’s him.

Cons: It may be a little late for him to jump into the race. Wait. He did what?