N.Y. Senate seat no safe bet for Mrs. Clinton

February 22, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Both President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton seem to be delighted with all the speculation about the first lady running for the Senate in New York.

One might even suspect that the president likes to encourage the notion. It seems to suggest that the Clintons have emerged from their recent troubles not only more popular than ever, but also ready to look ahead to new and even grander triumphs. Mr. Clinton, for his part, is quite capable of that kind of thinking.

But Mrs. Clinton would be making a serious mistake if she rushes into a Senate campaign in New York on the strength of a few good numbers in the opinion polls and some giddy pronouncements from a few Democrats. At the least, she could expect to find the campaign not only arduous but probably extremely unpleasant. And it is quite possible she would find it unsuccessful as well.

Much already has been made about how "tough" the news media in New York can be when they cover a campaign. But a more accurate description might be "rude" and "mindless" and "tenacious." Heaven help the candidate who misspeaks or fails in some other way to meet the most rigid standards of political correctness. Even a minor gaffe can be fodder for two or three news cycles.

Mrs. Clinton would be obliged, for example, to explain right away just what she meant when she was quoted as favoring creation of a Palestinian state. That one requires walking a fine line between outraging the more militant Jewish voters and being scorned by other Jewish voters for pandering. It is one of many topics on which there are no safe things a political candidate can say.

The problem of being a carpetbagger is being dismissed by Clinton partisans who point out that New York elected Democrat Robert F. Kennedy of Massachusetts to the Senate in 1964 and Republican James Buckley of Connecticut in 1970. But those circumstances were quite different.

Kennedy ran only a few months after the assassination of his brother John F. Kennedy. The result was an emotional outpouring of dimensions political veterans of the time considered without precedent.

Mr. Buckley, who lived in the suburbs outside New York City, was elected on the Conservative Party line in a three-way campaign after Republican regulars took the advice of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and abandoned their candidate, Charles Goodell, as too liberal.

If there is a cautionary note for Mrs. Clinton, it lies in the experience of many others who have tried to impress voters with their Washington celebrity. Nixon tried it in 1962 and lost for governor of California. In the 1980s, Richard Thornburgh tried to use his stature as attorney general to win a Senate seat back home in Pennsylvania but found the voters resistant. And in the '90s, New Yorkers have passed up two chances to elect Geraldine Ferraro, the onetime vice presidential nominee of her party, to the Senate.

In short, being a big shot in Washington doesn't necessarily cut any ice with voters in New York or elsewhere.

In fact, it is hard to imagine why Mrs. Clinton would want to be in the Senate anyway. After eight years as the first lady, she would find her power greatly diminished. And she would be obliged to keep company with a lot of people who are not great admirers of her husband, even if they voted to save his skin in the impeachment trial.

But just the fact that Mrs. Clinton is considering the option already has done something of a disservice to her party. Other potential Democratic candidates -- Rep. Nita Lowey of Westchester County is the most obvious case -- have had to put their plans on hold since shortly after Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan announced he would not seek re-election. And although Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the likely Republican candidate, is far from invincible, no Democrat wants to run as the consolation prize.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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