N.Y. Senate campaign won't help voter turnout

November 02, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- New Yorkers like to imagine that they are living in the capital of culture and sophistication. Then there is Sen. Al D'Amato.

The question of the moment is whether the Republican senator might have gone just a tad too far in calling his Democratic challenger, Rep. Charles Schumer, a "putzhead." There is some disagreement over precisely what the term means, but no one believes it is a compliment, whether in Yiddish or English. Mr. D'Amato himself confirmed that view by first denying he ever said it, then yielding to the inevitable proof.

So the issue is whether Mr. D'Amato has cost himself some of the support he usually earns among Jewish voters, which has been as high as 40 percent, very high for a Republican.

Mr. D'Amato seems fixated on these voters. The most outrageous thing he has done in this campaign has been to suggest that Mr. Schumer, who is Jewish, is somehow insensitive to the Holocaust. The Republican's complaint is that Mr. Schumer "missed the vote to make the Capitol Rotunda available for a magnificent Holocaust commemoration ceremony. That's the difference. I've been there. I understand that you've got to be there."

This one fails the smell test on two grounds.

First, the vote Mr. Schumer missed was a routine 406-0 vote in the House allowing the use of the Rotunda for a special observance. The notion that this could be interpreted as a lack of feeling about the Holocaust is grotesque.

Second, the idea that Mr. Schumer's absenteeism in Congress is a legitimate measure of his performance there is nonsense. Anyone who knows anything about how the House operates knows that the most valid measures are how effective a congressman may be in his committee work, in his attempts to influence the shape of key legislation and in his protection of constituent interests. Mr. D'Amato is, not to put too fine a point on it, playing his usual cheap-shot politics.

But Mr. Schumer's campaign has hardly been an educational experience either. The thrust of it has been that Mr. D'Amato is a liar -- as the tag line in the Democrat's television commercials put it, "too many lies for too long."

Mr. Schumer may be forgiven to a degree, however. He has seen those three previous D'Amato campaigns and learned from them that this was going to be a slash-and-burn exercise from start to finish. And the reason is that negative politics works. Polls show the GOP incumbent being blamed more for his negativism, but (( he remains essentially even with Mr. Schumer without suffering any increase in his own disapproval ratings.

The only inference, of course, is that this is what voters have come to expect, particularly within New York City, where news cycles often last only four or five hours. Thus, the accusation made at noon must be countered by the 5 p.m. news, and that one by the 10 or 11 p.m. news and so on. Calling someone a "putzhead" may not add much to the sum total of knowledge about who should serve in the Senate, but it does qualify as a "story" by the news standards of this campaign.

The destructive qualities of this kind of politics are obvious. It would come as no surprise if the turnout in New York tomorrow reaches a new low for a statewide campaign.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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