Bribe Them with Their Own Money

October 09, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

NEW YORK — New York. -- The shirt-sleeved candidate in the cramped campaign office puts down a stickball bat, picks up a basketball and continues his conversation about his autumn sport of trying to unhorse Mario Cuomo, who is seeking a fourth term as head of the New York ''family,'' as Governor Cuomo used to call the state until its discords made the ''family'' seem dysfunctional.

This day George Pataki, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, is bemused about a Cuomo campaign event. Three New Jersey mayors denounced Mr. Pataki's plan to cut New York's income taxes 25 percent, a plan comparable to Governor Christine Whitman's phased 30 percent cut of New Jersey taxes. The mayors warned that such cuts necessitate property-tax

increases. The supposed necessity arises from the premise that government must go on doing everything it is doing, and in the way it is doing it, world without end, amen.

Mr. Pataki has what Mark Twain called the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces and what today is the serenity of a politician with encouraging polls. He was an upstate mayor before he became a state senator. When he left Columbia Law School and joined a downtown firm he was puzzled by a structure he saw across the river in Jersey City. It was an airshaft for the Holland Tunnel and was Jersey City's tallest structure.

Today, he says, Jersey City has a skyline, home to people and businesses who did not relocate there from Florida or because Jersey City's cultural life is better than Manhattan's. These people, he says, have fled New York's taxes. New Jersey is currently leading the region in job creation.

Critics say Mr. Pataki has no blueprint for cutting spending. But the point of broad tax cuts is to compel subsequent choices. Critics say Mr. Pataki's tax-cut plan amounts to bribing voters. That is an interesting concept, bribing voters with their own money.

Mr. Pataki is not a conceptual thinker. His sponsor for the Republican nomination was Sen. Al D'Amato, who earned the nickname ''Senator Pothole'' by focusing on mundane rather than moral matters. Governor Cuomo's charge that his opponent is of the radical right amuses conservatives who consider Mr. Pataki a ''high maintenance'' candidate who needs to be tugged up from the pothole school of politics.

His running mate for lieutenant governor, Elizabeth McCaughey, scholar (Columbia University and the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank) has written the Pataki campaign's basic document, a report on jobs and taxes. She says New Yorkers are the most heavily taxed Americans and from 1982 to 1993 New York ranked 47th among the states in job growth. If the state's job growth rate had equaled that of the 25th-ranked state (Mississippi), it would have an additional 1.4 million jobs. Fewer than half the companies that have left New York have left the five-state region where these are the state and local tax burdens as percentages of personal income: Connecticut 10.8, Pennsylvania 10.9, New Jersey 11.2, Massachusetts 11.6, New York 15.8.

To win, Mr. Pataki does not need to be intellectual, only plausible. Governor Cuomo's charge that Mr. Pataki's tax plan ,, makes him implausible is blunted by the governor's own proposal of a tax cut, including a cut in the top rate, which hits taxpayers making $13,000 (a.k.a. ''the rich''). Mr. Cuomo was vulnerable four years ago when he got just 53 percent of the vote against a Republican candidate so implausible and unfunded that he barely beat the Conservative Party candidate (21 percent to 20).

The governors' career has been a long decrescendo since the 1984 Democratic Convention in San Francisco, where he became the brightest star in the liberal firmament because of his fiery keynote speech. In it he indicted Ronald Reagan because people were sleeping in the streets of America's cities. Mr. Reagan is long gone. People still sleep in this city's streets in the 12th year of the Cuomo administration.

An internal memo from the Cuomo campaign says, ''The message here is not how well we are doing but how much worse we might have done.'' How much worse, that is, given the Reagan Terror and other afflictions. Mr. Cuomo has blamed President Reagan, President Bush, the Japanese, world competition, the recession, even Nelson Rockefeller, dead 15 years, for the state's difficulties. The Alibi Ike of contemporary politics finds that with a Democrat in the White House, alibis are scarce.

He recently told the New York Times, ''I have been an old liberal for a long time.'' That was less a battle cry than a sigh, a coda for the era when this state was emblematic of liberalism's aspirations, rather than, as now, its disappointments.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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