Not Enough Lip

It was about halfway through Rick Lazio’s acceptance speech at the Republican state convention last Tuesday, after he’d worked his way through the “I am a New Yorker” business and begun laying out positions, that the sense of déjà vu took hold. I’ve heard all of this somewhere before, I thought. And yet not in this accent. But recently. And repeatedly. In the same arid rhetorical tones, and delivered with much the same sententious earnestness.

Then I remembered. I’d heard it all from Hillary. I assure you, I take no journalistic license here whatsoever for the sake of making the point more dramatically. Lazio’s speech was – is – Hillary’s.

He wants to bring New Yorkers together. He decries the politics of division and rejects the very idea (!) that one can lead by dividing people. He believes in opportunity and responsibility. He believes that what government does, it must do well. He wants to expand access to affordable health care. And help needy seniors get cheaper prescription drugs. Price stability for farmers. Lower taxes (yes, Hillary has said even this). A balanced approach to the budget surplus, the protection of Social Security of course being the paramount concern. Strengthening the public-school system, with higher standards. “Using federal funds,” Lazio declared, to “buy new computers or more textbooks, to reduce class size or expand teacher training.”

This is New Democrat-speak in every distressing manifestation: the intentional vagueness, the certainty that not a single syllable could conceivably offend any living soul, and so on. It was awfully hard to imagine, as the speech ended, that this was the sort of thing New York’s Republicans, to say nothing of people like Mike Long, the head of the state’s Conservative Party, really were prepared to rally behind, and early evidence indicated that I wasn’t alone in the thought. As I walked out of the hall, I heard a delegate on his cell phone muttering, “It was … fine. I mean, he was good. You know.”

Lazio should have to reveal something more to us. From last Tuesday, all that can be gleaned is that he’s for the American Dream. I doubt many people expected him to go on record against it.

Always more revealing than what’s in these speeches is what’s left out of them, and purged from Lazio’s text were any references to anything the Republican Party has actually stood for. No tough-on-crime talk. Nothing about welfare. A strong national defense? Not a word. Family values at best wanly implied by passing mentions of his wife and two daughters. Broad, across-the-board tax cuts not in evidence. The word abortion never mentioned, either to support or to denounce it. No Second Amendment. No vouchers. Not even a lusty denunciation of Bill Clinton – this must have been the first meeting of more than three Republicans in America in the past seven years where that didn’t happen.

The political motive for Lazio’s approach is obvious enough. The strategy is to hold the center and try to push Mrs. Clinton off to the left, and it’s fine for now. But there are two things this strategy is not: (a) interesting and (b) honest.

Say what you will about Rudy Giuliani (and the Republicans I talked with last week seemed genuinely relieved that he had bowed out), but one thing the mayor had going for him was his emotional honesty – his often infuriating and yet oddly admirable bluntness. This was only just beginning to contrast rather advantageously with Mrs. C’s obtuse guardedness.

Despite all the reasons to be against the mayor’s Senate candidacy, he had just offered up a good reason to be for it – to see if a politician could not only throw away but basically take a blowtorch to all known rules governing the treacly image politicians and their families are supposed to present to the world, and win an election in spite of, or perhaps because of, it. With the New Rudy, the Republicans had a candidate whose taste for smashing convention would have made a stark emotional contrast with Hillary. Instead, they have a candidate who is trying to be like her.

Like everyone else, I don’t know yet who Rick Lazio is. But it seems impossible to me that the speech I heard last week really represented who he is. We’ll learn more about his voting record and the battles he’s engaged – or dodged – as time goes on, but it’s hard to believe the sum and substance of his career amounts to the moderate-to-liberal softballs he tossed into the sweaty hotel-ballroom air last week.

It’s partly a question of the record. On the same day Lazio became his party’s nominee, abortion-rights activists in Buffalo were holding a press conference noting that Lazio, on 94 abortion-rights-related votes in his House career, had voted pro-choice a little more than half the time. Does this arrangement of pro and con votes represent some consistent principle or mere opportunism? We’ll find out soon enough, but ducking abortion completely, as he did last Tuesday, suggests that this issue – and this senator, whoever it ends up being, will in all likelihood vote on the confirmation of three Supreme Court nominees – is one he’d rather not discuss.

But it’s about more than his record. It’s about what he really believes. Of course he’ll push furiously at the “I’m from New York” button, and it’s possible, unless Hillary finds a way to counter it, that that argument alone may end up being enough for him. It shouldn’t be. He should have to reveal something more to us about how he sees the world. From last Tuesday, all that can be gleaned is that he’s for the American Dream. I doubt many people expected him to go on record against it.

So here we are: two candidates, both straining to be as bland and uncontroversial as they can possibly be. I say: Victory will belong to the one who breaks out of the shell and does something that’s actually interesting to people. I’d like to see Lazio behave in a way that will make us quit describing him as boyish and likable. I’d love to see Mrs. Clinton walk into a roomful of white women, in Scarsdale or someplace, and say, No, I never wanted to leave him, of course he behaved like a jerk and of course I was embarrassed, but he’s the man I married and my marriage is nobody’s business but mine and my husband’s, and if it really means that much to you, well, vote against me. People would love it. They’d compare it to Rudy’s Judith Nathan moment. But she doesn’t have the nerve. A quality the new guy seems to lack, too.


Not Enough Lip