Former Governor of New York George Pataki has announced that he is running for the 2016 Republican nomination for president. He joins a pretty crowded field (the Wikipedia page on the GOP candidates is fascinating). His name recognition isn’t great, and it’s been nine years since he last held public office. At first glance, there isn’t a lot to separate Pataki from all the other candidates whose polling hovers in the low single digits. But there is one big thing. He’s not an arch conservative. He hasn’t spent the entire Obama administration blasting anything and everything the president has done, nor has he spent much time pandering to the nut job base of the Republican Party. He hasn’t pegged gay marriage to natural disasters, called the Constitution the word of God, or questioned whether or not the military is going to invade Texas. In short, he doesn’t have nearly as much baggage as someone like Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee.
The current nominating environment can be divided into two camps: Jeb Bush and everyone else. The wisdom holds that while Cruz, Huckabee, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie (DOA not because he’s too conservative to win a general election, but because he’s a scoundrel), Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Scott Walker, and, yes, Donald Trump, chew each other up in the over-crowded debates and primaries, Jeb Bush would hover over it all and lock up an inevitable nomination sometime in April 2016. But, Jeb Bush has been stumbling.
Bush had to know that he could not escape the shadow of his brother’s presidency, yet when he was asked about the Iraq war, whether he would have made the same choice to invade, he seemed unprepared for the question. He said he would have done the same thing as W. It was an absurd answer to give after we’ve spent such a long time mired in war, and Bush should have known that. He spent the next week waffling and eventually backtracking his answer. It was such a bad answer that the media ended up debating the Iraq War all over again. It’s not a good thing for Bush’s campaign that, before he’s even declared, people are already associating him with the single greatest foreign policy failure in American history, and possibly the greatest crime ever committed by an administration. It doesn’t matter what Bush really believes about the war and how he would have fought it. There is only one acceptable answer when asked if one would have invaded Iraq in 2003, and that answer is ‘NO.’
Like some other big names who once decided to run for president (Rudy Giuliani comes to mind), Jeb Bush is showing that he might not be proficient at campaigning. Whether this is just rust remains to be seen, and it’s still very early, but Bush’s stumbles show a vulnerability that people did not think was there just a few weeks ago. If ever there was a time for a moderate Republican to jump into the nominating fight, this is it.
George Pataki probably looks at Bush, and sees a beatable candidate. All the other names are irrelevant (with the possible exception of Rubio, but I don’t think his poll numbers will survive the media exposure of a presidential nominating contest). Pataki doesn’t have to beat Rick Santorum or Rick Perry. He only has to beat Jeb Bush, and if Jeb makes a habit out of saying stupid things, Pataki could find himself winning big in blue state GOP primaries, which carry a boatload of delegates (see here and here). Pataki is a long shot, but a legitimate one.