Race Against Time

Last Monday evening, I made my way down to Hillary’s campaign headquarters in the shmatte district to hop on the press van heading out to her speech that night in Woodbury, on Long Island. It was rush hour, so traffic was ridiculous already; then the usual parade of hassles – police emergency on the 59th Street Bridge, lane closure on the L.I.E. – slowed us down even more. By the time we got to the Crest Hollow Country Club, Hillary had already delivered her speech and left (she had arrived early, a circumstance almost without precedent). Press aide Karen Dunn helpfully procured a tape of the speech, which she handed over to one of the daily reporters. He tried to listen for five minutes, but the sound quality was poor, he couldn’t make heads or tails of it, and he gave up. So we missed it entirely.

And you know what? It didn’t matter at all.

It didn’t matter because this race is, emotionally at least, finished. That’s not to say it’s over. Things can always change in two weeks. Middle East? Some other aggrieved Arkansan? Anything can happen.

But right now, the energy is out of this race. You could really tell it last Thursday, when the Times made the strange decision to front-page Robert Ray’s final – well, never say final with that crowd – Travelgate blast. An A-1 Times story usually sets the town atwitter, but this one didn’t. The morning the story hit, Rick Lazio held a press conference on Park Avenue. His press aides cut the questions off before anyone even asked about the story, which means they didn’t want a sound bite to go out about it. One supposes the story could still amount to something, but at press time, it was amounting to a yawn.

The newspapers of early September assured us this race would turn crazy after Labor Day. Well, except for the debates, it hasn’t. Consider these two pieces of evidence:

On October 13, the Times’s Clifford Levy filed a tough piece about the Clinton campaign’s using an official White House guest list to solicit contributions. Three months ago, this would have caused quite a ruckus. A year ago, with Rudy and campaign manager Bruce Teitelbaum around to make noise about it, the story would have caused an earthquake. Last week, it petered out.

“This is the Thanksgiving dinner of political campaigns,” says a political consultant. “By the time you get to the pumpkin pie … it makes you kind of nauseous to think about it.”

Last Monday, reporters were getting e-mails about an “open letter” Juanita Broaddrick, the Arkansas woman who claims Bill sexually assaulted her, had written to Hillary Clinton. Again, a few months ago – scandale. Now nobody cares. The Washington Times did a piece (and the Washington Times can make the New York Post look like The Nation some days), but no New York paper bothered. Even the Post blew it off.

What’s up with this? I’ll leave it to Brent Bozell to say it’s the evil liberal media covering for Hillary. The actual explanations are three.

First, the Clinton campaign is deflecting charges much more efficiently these days. A few months ago, the campaign would’ve gone into hiding and the candidate would have dithered for three or four days before responding to the Times story. Now, with the much-vaunted “war room” in place, a rapid-response operation that came together in late August (before which the Clinton campaign responded to charges with roughly the speed at which the earth’s tectonic plates shift), Howard Wolfson and others were able to answer the guest-list charge, and Hillary accepted responsibility. Whether this response was credible – she said it was a mix-up, and the campaign was refunding the mere $225 the solicitations brought in – is in the eye of the beholder, but it was a response, and the story died.

Second, Rick Lazio and his campaign just haven’t been very swift about these things. With respect to the foregoing story, Lazio declared the use of the list “illegal” and suggested Mrs. Clinton should be prosecuted, which struck everyone this side of Larry Klayman as a little over the top.

And when he’s not over the top, he’s not up to the task. For example, at the second debate, Mrs. Clinton said she would not support taxpayer funding of stadiums. Lazio said he would, as a boon to economic development and so forth.

After the debate, Giuliani came into the spin room and was asked about Mrs. Clinton’s opposition, and what was striking was how vastly more persuasive his arguments were on the question than anything Lazio said. Her response, the mayor said, “shows that she doesn’t understand very much about economic development,” and he went on to say that if her views had been followed, Buffalo and Rochester wouldn’t have minor-league baseball parks. In two short sentences, Giuliani (a) turned the argument into one over municipal financing, which he presumably knows more about than she does, and (b) smartly converted a city-only issue into a statewide issue. If he’d been the one standing up there at the opposite podium, he’d have won the point. But he’s not the candidate.

And third, and most of all: People are tired of this race. I’m sure you’re tired of it; imagine how you’d feel if you’d had to cover it for sixteen months. Or poll it, or spew quotes about it, or have anything to do with it. It was jolly at first – the 250 journalists on Pat Moynihan’s hillside; the Talk interview; the FALN fiasco (which, at two weeks, still holds the record for longest-running drama of the campaign). Now? Even if she made such a mistake, it wouldn’t carry quite the voltage those errors did back when this was all fresh and exciting.

“This is the Thanksgiving dinner of political campaigns,” says political consultant Norman Adler. “By the time you get to the pumpkin pie, well, it looks pretty good, but you can’t imagine where you’re going to put it, and it makes you kind of nauseous to think about it.” And, as Adler put it, Lazio “needs people to think about” the race more than Hillary does, because only then can he hope to persuade people that he’s actually worth listening to.

He still may. But not without a really good reason, and certainly not during the World Series. To extend Adler’s analogy, it may be tryptophan time.

Race Against Time