Conservative future for Pataki?

Posted: May 20, 2002 12:00 AM
The Conservative Party of the state of New York put on a 40th birthday celebration on Thursday that was a happy affair, complete with a freshly published history of the party by George Marlin -- "Fighting the Good Fight" -- but there were strains in the middle-aged lady of material political consequence. They had to do not only with the future of the party, but also with the future of George Pataki, who is governor of New York thanks to the crossover vote provided by the Conservatives in 1994.

The party has received major attention at its big affairs. Vice President George Bush was there at its 1984 party, and on Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney was there, introduced by his illustrious wife, Lynne. It made for a nice opener when the vice president remarked that the year the Conservative Party was born, he was a student in Lincoln, Neb., courting his schoolmate, Lynne. "If she had married somebody else, he'd have been vice president today."

The program rollicked along, with no less than 36 honorees seated on the twin-decked dais, including fallen senators Alfonse D'Amato and James Buckley. George Pataki was the third speaker. In between, as second speaker, was the other Buckley, occupant of this space and Conservative candidate for mayor of New York in 1965.

The underlying question at the party was whether the leadership, under the amiable dirigiste hand of Michael Long, its chairman, had taken too many ideological shortcuts in agreeing to nominate Pataki for a third term notwithstanding Pataki's courtship of liberal support. State debt has soared under Governor Pataki; he has courted organized labor with extreme largesse, and on social issues he has been obsequiously accommodating. Buckley quoted the editorial in National Review that wonders "whether the only abortion law Governor Pataki would oppose would be one that threatened the rights of gays and lesbians."

There had been some talk of a challenge to Mr. Pataki by an enrolled Conservative, but the apparent challenger faded away before the dinner. The party heard then from Thomas Golisano, petitioning for a fight for the nomination. Golisano is a wealthy entrepreneur from Rochester who ran for governor twice before on the Independent line, a legacy of Ross Perot. He spent $10 million in 1998 and nosed out the Conservative line, occupying Row C.

But Golisano has not come across as a conservative of the kind pictured in the pastiche of 1962 newspaper stories distributed at the banquet. The New York Daily News editorial at that time had quoted with manifest approval a sentence from the party's founders: "The Rockefeller-Javits elements must be made to realize that so long as they abandon Republican principles in pursuit of liberal backing, they will be denied the support of the conservative Republicans who constitute the backbone of the party."

The question arises, on the 40th birthday, whether the Conservative Party, pursuing establishment orthodoxy notwithstanding the firebrand fidelity of Chairman Long, is losing its grip on conservatives, who are being asked to settle for a Governor Pataki 40 years after they balked at settling for a Governor Rockefeller.

Since Golisano is not a registered Conservative, he'd face something of a clerical nightmare contending against the party nominee. Conservative dissenters from Pataki would need to write in G-o-l-i-s-a-n-o (this is chad-time again --no spelling errors permitted) and get X thousand of votes in order to force a primary. That seems hard to do even for an aspirant disposed to put up another 10 million simoleons.

Meanwhile, George Pataki is running strong. Speaking without notes he delivered thunderous approval of his record, stressing such music for the ear of his audience as hugely reduced welfare rolls, reduction in crime and a forthcoming billion-dollar tax reduction. The conversational undertow at the big party was to the effect that if the first speaker of the evening calls it quits in 2004 after four years, then at the next Conservative Party banquet, the third speaker would take his place, and we would all listen to Vice President George Pataki.

Meanwhile, George has other dragons to slay. He confided to the second speaker that next week he would appear at commencement at Yale University, where he intended to propound the thesis that liberal intellectuals are intolerant and exercise their own rigid orthodoxy. The second speaker nodded his head in agreement, and commented that 50 years ago he had written a book about Yale making exactly that point.