05 May 2016
Republicans are in a New York state of mind
When George Pataki, the former governor of New York, announced his candidacy for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, the scoffing was universal. There was no way, the experts said confidently, that a New York Republican could win a spot on the GOP's national ticket. At that time, Donald Trump was still considered a sideshow, but Trump's success seems to refute all the naysayers about New York Republicans. You can't deny that Trump has been identified with his home state, not to mention his home town. Senator Cruz clearly believed that Trump's "New York values" would handicap him in a national campaign, to cite the most blatant example. In retrospect, it might be argued that Pataki, who won three terms in Albany, was the wrong kind, and Trump the right kind of New York Republican. Paradoxically, it might also be pointed out that Pataki is exceptional among New York Republicans. Given their druthers, New York Republicans often go for Trump-type personalities: bombastic businessmen who promise unconventional governance based on their innocence of conventional politics. In 1990, before Pataki's ascent, Republicans despairing over a weak field of potential challengers to the then-mighty Gov. Mario Cuomo -- the father of the current governor -- turned to dark horse businessman Pierre Rinfret. In 2010, long after Pataki's retirement, an early manifestation of the Tea Party carried businessman Carl Palladino, now conspicuous among Trump's Empire State supporters, to an upset victory over a well-known conservative congressman at the Republican primary. For all that people want to think of the national GOP as increasingly a southern and western party, Trump's presumptive nomination may signal a New York-ification of the Republican party as populist cultural conservatives across the country, with certain exceptions where Cruz was strong, detach themselves from ideological orthodoxy to express their instinctual yearning for a Leader -- not a Führer, mind you, but someone they perceive to be decisive and, above all, tough. But if the likes of Rinfret and Palladino help us understand Trump's success, they may also show his limits. While boring, center-right Pataki won three terms, Rinfret's campaign was a disaster marked by frequent absence from the state and a mouth that still makes Trump look tame. I recall vividly a press conference at which Rinfret called a reporter a political prostitute, for instance. In the end, Rinfret finished barely ahead of a third-party conservative candidate, while in 2010 Palladino was crushed by Cuomo the Younger by a nearly two-to-one margin. Today, Trump boasts that he, unlike many previous Republican presidential candidates, can win the Empire State. It might happen, since anything can happen to Hillary Clinton in the next six months, but history seems to show that, in the state as in the nation, the type of candidate who appeals to the Republican base has a hard time in the general election. Trump's claim that he can win New York can't be taken too seriously when his models are New Yorkers who only had New York to win, but failed badly.