What’s My Line?

Sometime in the next few weeks, the Liberal Party will throw its support behind Rudy Giuliani for Senate.

That will surprise no one, but among the people it won’t thrill is Al Gore, who will then face a tricky dilemma.

By history and tradition, the Libs designate a full slate of candidates, from the low races right on up to the presidency. And in every presidential election since the party’s 1944 founding, with one exception (in 1980), the party has backed the Democratic candidate. That’d be Gore. Which means that if Gore accepts the Liberal nomination for president, he would, in effect, on Ballot Line E (the Republicans are A, the Democrats B, etc.) in the state of New York, be Rudy Giuliani’s running mate.

You can probably guess who doesn’t like this.

The first and most universally understood law of political survival is: Protect yourself. Do what you have to do, especially when it comes to votes. Gore has certainly proved himself more than glancingly familiar with that law, most recently in South Florida. So the usual course would be for Gore to say, “Look, Hillary, I see your point, and I’m for you and all that, but I’m in a race here, too, and if that line gets me five votes, I take it.”

The odds today are that Gore will do just that. But about this Senate race, there’s little that’s usual. And so, some insiders I canvassed last week offered four reasons why Gore might actually be persuaded to tell Liberal Party boss Ray Harding thanks but no thanks.

The Working Families Party has quietly been outpolling the Liberal Party all over the state. The WFP endorsed Hillary and is likely to back Gore, which would give him a second ballot line.

First, Gore won’t need the line to win New York. In the last Quinnipiac College poll, he was ahead of W by seventeen points. Spring poll numbers often change by fall, of course, but these are unlikely to. The showdown states for the presidential race are already set: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California if Bush makes a play for it, maybe a couple others. The Bush campaign is likely to spend its money there, not here. (In 1992 and 1996, Clinton won New York by 1.1 million and 1.8 million votes, respectively.)

Second, there will undoubtedly be pressure on Gore from local Democrats to eschew the line. “Months ago, I spoke to the vice-president about not taking the Liberal Party designation,” says Dinkins, whose animosity toward Harding is boundless. “This was without regard to Rudy Giuliani. But now that it appears he’ll get their line for Senate, that just compounds it.” State Comptroller Carl McCall added his voice in an interview last week: “If the Liberal Party endorses Rudy Giuliani, I and many of us would urge the vice-president not to take that line.” Few others are saying this just yet, but what they’re willing to tell me for print now and what they’ll tell Gore privately a month from now are of course two very different things.

Third, there’s a fairly strong feeling of camaraderie between the staffs of the Gore and Hillary campaigns, and among the backroom players with hooks into both camps. These are people who’ve known each other for years. Whatever influence they have will be directed toward pushing Gore away from the Libs.

Finally, there are the Clintons themselves. “There are people associated with Hillary who have raised the issue with Gore,” says one source. It’s doubtful that Hillary has much juice with Gore. But there is that other Clinton, and Bill is said to be acutely aware of this situation. You don’t have to be a political genius to figure out the deal there: “Okay, Al. You say no to the line, I campaign for you in October in the swing suburbs where my job-approval rating is 65 percent in states like … Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.” That’s more in Gore’s self-interest than a ballot line that’s worth 100,000 votes in a state he’s supposed to win by a million.

But, you say, it’s not as though Gore will campaign with Giuliani. Think again. Which brings us to a fifth reason: In 1998, the Liberals backed Betsy McCaughey Ross for governor and Chuck Schumer for Senate. In the final days of that campaign, the Liberals spent nearly $1 million on radio and cable TV ads and direct mail trumpeting their slate. Harding would be delighted to pay for an “Al Gore-Rudy Giuliani-Vote Liberal!” ad blitz.

Finally, here’s reason six. For years, Democrats have accepted Liberal backing even though they didn’t like the party’s relationship with Rudy, because the Libs were the only other game in town. That’s no longer true. The Working Families Party has a ballot line now. The old joke about the Liberal Party is that it’s neither; well, the Working Families Party is both. Whereas the Liberal Party is Ray Harding, the Working Families Party has an organizational structure, rooted in the unions (it is left, but it’s economic-populist left, not wine-and-cheese left). If you live in Brooklyn or Buffalo or Port Jervis, you can actually go to a Working Families Party meeting, and actual issues, like increasing the state minimum wage, will be discussed. The same cannot be said for the Liberalites.

The WFP has quietly been outpolling the Liberal Party in local races all over the state. The party endorsed Hillary and is likely to back Gore, which would give Gore a second ballot line with the Senate candidate he’s endorsed.

And if Al does go that route? Bad news for Ray. He won’t have a president. He doesn’t have a governor and isn’t likely to get one (McCall, the Democratic front-runner for 2002, appears likely to blow off the Liberals and cast his lot with the WFP). And if Rudy loses, Harding won’t have the new senator. He does have Schumer, but of the big three, senator matters least, since it doesn’t offer much in the way of jobs and deals.

People have written Harding’s political obit before, so I’m not about to do that. But something is changing. The old, loyal Liberal Party base – Jewish socialists and unionists – is dying off. The WFP did a poll of Liberal Party members in 1998, and the results defy every insider assumption. Nearly half of the state’s 92,000 enrolled Liberals have been in the party less than ten years; only a third have been for more than twenty. It’s clear from their other responses that these recent enrollees join because they are committed, small-l liberals who genuinely (and quite mistakenly) assume that the party still stands for liberal ideals. When members were asked who their party’s leader was, only 9 percent could name-check Harding. Even when told his name in the next question, only 21 percent recognized it, and 29 percent – a plurality – thought he was doing a “poor” job running the party.

If self-interest is Gore’s game, maybe steering clear of a man with those kinds of numbers is his ticket.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

What’s My Line?