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Politically Incorrect

Jesse Helms's favorite campaign strategist was the wizard behind Bibi Netanyahu's stunning loss to Ehud Barak (and probably the pandering commuter-tax repeal too).

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Half a world separates Albany and Jerusalem, and last week's events in those cities -- a historic election whose landslide proportions surprised everyone and a hysterical dogfight whose absurdity surprised no one -- may not seem to share any common thread. But both bear the grubby paw prints of one man, a fellow whom by acclamation we must now call the world's dumbest political consultant.

You may be familiar with the general arc of the career of Arthur Finkelstein. How, in 1979, at the behest of a few state Republican leaders, he set out to locate a suburban Catholic conservative to beat Jacob Javits and converted Alfonse D'Amato from leisure-suit-wearing small-timer to Brooks Brothers-clad senator. How he grazed in the pastures of the National Congressional Club, Jesse Helms's old political organization, and made a bundle steering Helms and other Tarheel Tories to victory. How he orchestrated many winning races for Republican clients by calling their Democratic opponents hopelessly/foolishly/ criminally liberal. How he later started to lose races by calling Democrats hopelessly/foolishly/criminally liberal. How he came out to Boston magazine, granting the only personal interview (albeit not for the record) he's ever given, casually asserting that he saw no contradiction between keeping house with his male lover and the two children they're raising in Massachusetts and the fact that he works mainly for candidates who'd as soon see your average homosexual fornicator cast into the fires.

Now Israel. It's one of Tomasky's Rules of Politics that consultants don't lose elections; candidates do. That said, it's worth noting just how lavishly stupid Finkelstein's campaign strategy for Netanyahu was. One had only to watch a little C-span and give the occasional look-see to the Israeli papers to marvel at Likud's multiple changes in strategy over the course of the campaign's closing weeks. Finkelstein-produced Likud ads tried to argue that Ehud Barak would give up part of Jerusalem. Barak, with Clintonites James Carville, Stan Greenberg, and Bob Shrum working the gears, countered with an ad showing Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert -- very Likud himself -- praising Barak's commitment to the capital. Likud commercials implied Barak aggressively supported a Palestinian state. Barak repeated his fealty to a national referendum on any final-status agreement. Other Likud ads said a win for Barak would mean a win for Arafat, which worked in 1996 against Shimon Peres but failed utterly against the bemedaled Barak. Finally, in the campaign's final week, Finkelstein became an issue himself -- now, that's what you want in a political consultant -- when a Likud minister supposedly leaked a report to Ma'ariv that Bibi was unhappy with Finkelstein's performance. Netanyahu denounced the story as "a vicious lie," which was itself of course a lie, but what else could he do at that point? Maybe consultants do lose elections.

Remember the Man Who Time Forgot? Finkelstein is the Man Who Forgot Time. As America changed through the nineties, as liberalism remade itself and conservatism's Reagan-era clarity grew muddled, Finkelstein couldn't adjust. He knew (the past tense seems appropriate) how to do only one thing: attack. Finkelstein used alarmist images -- footage of burned-out Israeli buses -- without understanding the generational and cultural shifts in Israeli society that Barak's team got intuitively. Barak appeared forward-looking, and Netanyahu -- younger than his Labor opponent by eight years -- seemed stuck in a past the country was desperate to escape.

On to Albany. Finkelstein is not involved -- publicly, at least -- with the commuter-tax sneak attack the governor and the legislature sprang on us a week ago Wednesday. But where there's the smoke of tax-cut politics, the fire of Finkelstein can't be far behind. George Pataki doesn't make calculations like this one without running them by old Arthur. Today's conventional wisdom is that Pataki and Finkelstein have cleverly boxed Giuliani into a corner, because the mayor's defense of this tax will bury him with suburban voters in a GOP Senate primary. Giuliani was quickly reproved by Long Island congressmen Rick Lazio and Peter King, both of whom want to run against the mayor (to know which one Pataki prefers, watch and see who hires Finkelstein). "Republican primaries are conservative orgies," says a Pataki ally. "Look at Rudy Giuliani. You can tell a conservative voter, 'He's not with you on abortion. He's not with you on gay rights. He's not even with you on taxes.' I can see the commercials now."

Undoubtedly, those commercials will be made. But what if this tax, $3.27 a week to your average Westchesterite, isn't quite as resented as the experts suspect? What if Giuliani can convince Republican voters that he felt ambushed, that he had to stand up for his city, and that it all proves only that he'll fight just as aggressively for them should they ship him off to the Senate? The mayor's single admirable personal trait is his occasional willingness to damn the conventional wisdom, refuse to pander, and do what he believes is the right thing. In this era of the post-postmodern political campaign, voters have a pretty nuanced understanding of the (previously) hidden agendas behind politicians' messages. The cynical GOP motive behind this tax cut is apparent to everyone. The comparative decency of Giuliani's motive in retaining it is, too. The old prosecutor's ability to argue that case, especially with millions of dollars in the war chest, should not be underestimated.


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