Let's start with how Pataki explains his own thinking. "It is time to stand up, protect our freedom and take back this government," Pataki says in a video announcing his bid released Thursday morning. "We the people, not Washington, are equipped to lead this nation."
That's, um, pretty thin gruel.
So, let me explain.
Remember that Pataki was a giant national star in the mid-1990s when he came from nowhere to beat Democratic titan Mario Cuomo for governor in 1994. He was reelected convincingly in 1998 and again in 2002 -- despite the clear Democratic lean of the Empire State.
Pataki's problem was -- and is -- bad timing. When his star was rising, Bill Clinton was in office. The juggernaut that was George W. Bush's 2000 presidential candidacy left the likes of Pataki (and Ohio Gov. John Kasich among others) standing on the sidelines. In 2008, with Pataki just two years removed from office, another New Yorker talking about helping the state through the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- Rudy Giuliani -- was already sitting in the space the former New York governor would have occupied. By 2012, he had been out of office for six years and, stung by the failures of Giuliani's campaign, voters had already moved on.
The time was just never right for Pataki to run for president. But that's a very hard thing to accept, particularly when you have been the governor of one of the largest states in the country for 12 years. Pataki has always wanted to run for president and, by golly, he's going to do it no matter what the polls and pundits say. He's 69 years old -- he'll be 70 on June 24 -- and it's sort of a now-or-never type situation.
It's the same mentality that led longtime Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. He'd been a powerful politician for a very long time and had always harbored a dream of running for president. The timing never worked out for him to be a serious, top-tier candidate, but he needed to scratch that itch anyway. So he did. And, predictably, he lost badly.
Why this race for Pataki though, as opposed to the one in 2012, which he also considered entering? For the same reason that the other 15 or 16 or 20 Republicans are going to run: It's the most wide-open fight for a presidential nomination in modern history. This is the "why not me" race of a lifetime for Republican pols; just look at the new Quinnipiac University national poll that shows five(!) candidates tied for the lead -- each with 10 percent! Sure, Pataki thinks, I'm a long shot. But if ever a long shot was going to come through, this is the race where it would happen.
Then there is the x-factor that running for president has proven to be a very lucrative career move for plenty of candidates, like Pataki, who were considered long shots at the start of a campaign. Mike Huckabee went from obscurity in 2008 to a book deal, TV show, celebrity and wealth today. (And yes, he, like every other Republican, is running for president in 2016.) Rick Santorum benefited greatly from losing the 2012 presidential race. Herman Cain, too.
"George Pataki, former New York governor and 2016 presidential candidate," sounds a lot more appealing -- and current -- than "George Pataki, former New York governor who left office in 2006." At least some part of Pataki's decision is driven by that reality, knowing that win, lose or draw (okay, that last one is impossible), he is very likely to benefit from this campaign.
Not everyone runs for president because they plan on winning. George Pataki's bid fits squarely into that tradition.