It Takes a . . . Carpetbagger

Political speculation comes, and political speculation goes. But this one, as far as New York Democrats are concerned, is the Mother of All Scenarios, a dream worthy of their sense of history: Hillary for Senate.

It seems, at first blush, ridiculous. Even she couldn’t pull this one off. Wouldn’t want to, for one thing. Run for Senate from a state she’s never lived in? Only to go back to Washington – she hates Washington – back to the city of Ken Starr and Trent Lott and Chris Matthews and Sally Quinn, where they see her as an intruder and debaucher of pre-Clinton-era mores that were, um, unimpeachable? She should be dying to get the hell out of there, start making the kind of money she needs to pay those legal bills, hover in the penumbra of national politics for a while, live happily with her breathtaking transformation from ultra-liberal, anti-cookie immoralist to martyred feminist familial rock.

But hold on a minute. Surely, she wants a career and, after her husband’s term ends, will be free to establish one on her own terms entirely. Surely, she hankers still to be at the center of things. Surely, having done the spade work of public service, having read to thousands of schoolchildren and lit hundreds of Christmas trees and been roped into lending her name to that silly little bestiary about Buddy and Socks, she wants more substance and less fluff. So why not?

“That’s something that … I don’t know how much of a possibility that is,” says James Carville. “It’s more fun to speculate than anything else.”

“Off the record?” says a Senate Democratic staff person. “Not a chance in hell.”

“She’d be a terrific candidate. She could win,” says George Stephanopoulos. “SHE’S … NOT … RUNNING!”

One might ask, however, if George, given his own career change, is still in the loop. And others who know her aren’t quite so fast to slam the door. “She’s not about to make any Shermanesque statement,” says Harold Ickes, who says he still talks to her every couple of weeks or so. “I’d be surprised, but, you know, you never know.”

Nope, you never do. And unlikely as it may seem to some, it has to be said that the trajectory of her life these last tumultuous years has been pretty unlikely, too. Hillary for Senate? Call it improbable, but admit, too, given who she is and what New York is, that it makes a strange kind of sense.

This story has two parts. One part, of course, is about Hillary – her pilgrim’s progress, as it were, her search for redemption and a future, the unprecedented and unique politico-cultural space she occupies. We’ll come back around to that. But the other part, and in many ways the more interesting part, is about New York. Stephanopoulos is blunt on this point: “This is as much about the vanity of New York and New Yorkers as it is about Mrs. Clinton. And by using the word vanity, I affirm that I am not a candidate in this race.”

The Hill-for-Senate boomlet emanates, in the first instance, from a few very specific political observations: (1) Rudy Giuliani is likely to be the Republican nominee for Pat Moynihan’s seat in 2000, and the Democrats will be hard-pressed to find someone who can run credibly against him. (2) It follows that the national party risks losing a Senate seat at a moment in history the Democrats are hoping will propel them back into control of Congress, and the state party loses a major, and prestigious, power base. (3) The state Democratic Party is not, shall we say, rich with talent just now. (4) The state Democratic Party is not rich with money, either, and would not mind finding a candidate who can raise plenty, for both self and party. (5) There’s one Democrat whom Democrats seem to love, love, love.

“I’ve been working on this ever since Senator Moynihan decided he wasn’t going to run again,” says Harlem congressman Charlie Rangel, who seems to be the one who came up with this idea and who has run it by both Clintons without getting a yes, but also without getting anything like a no. “It’s just amazing how she’s gained the respect of so many Democrats, here in New York and everywhere. She’d be a very viable candidate.”

To whom? “I can’t begin,” Rangel gushes, “to give you the names of labor leaders and politicians and activists who believe it would be a fantastic thing for our state and our party.”

Rangel is right – virtually every Democratic official and activist in New York is reduced to drool at the thought of her running. And money? Please. When New Jersey senator Robert Torricelli floated the idea of a Hillary candidacy in early January, it wasn’t simply idle cheerleading: Torricelli is the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which means it’s his job to scour the nation and find candidates who can make realistic runs for the Senate (i.e., can raise at least $10 million or so). Ten million, for Hillary, would be lowballing it. A Hillary-for-Senate campaign would have to employ half-a-dozen staffers just to open the checks.

It all sounds too good to be true to New York Democrats. Left for dead after the losses of David Dinkins and Mario Cuomo, they started to see daylight last year when Chuck Schumer toppled Al D’Amato. If Hillary ran, they say – especially if she ran against Giuliani – it’d be like the heavens opening up. “I think she would win if she ran,” says Elizabeth Holtzman. “There’d be a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for her, tremendous excitement among women, in the African-American community. Her husband is very popular here, and she, if anything, might be more popular.”

“Hillary would be an A-plus candidate,” says Public Advocate Mark Green, “since she has the creativity, agenda, and resources necessary to compete against any Republican.”

“She would,” says one local Democratic consultant, “be a shoo-in. No argument.”

“It’d be fun, man,” Carville says. “Everybody would love it. You’d have the situation where, if those two ran, the New York Senate race would be more interesting than the presidential race.”

Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. New York, of course, expects to be the center of attention in all matters. This is still true in many respects, but it’s not true in politics. Yes, we have the country’s most famous mayor, some would argue its most successful mayor. And we have a governor who, just because he’s governor of New York and not of Montana, gets to mull a presidential run while reporters scribble down his thoughts. But the governor hasn’t yet established himself as a Man of Stature, and the mayor, well, the mayor makes it kinda hard sometimes for the banned-from-City Hall citizenry to revel in his success. Schumer has the potential to earn a real place in the history books, but he’s just getting started. Beyond that, they’re all second-echelon – no great and powerful congressional chairmen, no larger-than-life figures. And the power centers? They’ve moved to the suburbs out past O’Hare (Henry Hyde’s district) and, Godsakes, Mississippi.

New York – Democrats, naturally, but really the whole New York Establishment – yearns for the kind of starring role it hasn’t had in years. But for a starring role, you need stars. Big, serious people, with brains and, what, elan. Herbert Lehman. Robert Wagner, the first. Adam Clayton Powell. Bobby Kennedy. Pat Moynihan. Mario Cuomo, except that he never put his talents to the ultimate test. Sure, it makes more sense, given her personal history, to run from Arkansas or Illinois, but at the end of the day, they’re … well, Arkansas and Illinois. Chicago’s great and all, a world-class city; but who’s she going to hobnob with in Chicago, that lady who writes the V. I. Warshawski novels? “I think people in this state like having glamorous representatives,” says Diane Ravitch, New Yorker, former assistant secretary of Education, and, like Hillary, Wellesley alumna (though earlier; she matriculated alongside Madeleine Albright). “That’s how Bobby Kennedy got in in ‘64.”

Yes, Bobby. Everyone points to Bobby. He wanted to run for president in 1964, but with Lyndon Johnson already in the Oval Office, he decided against it. He wanted to be Lyndon’s veep, but Johnson decided a Yankee wouldn’t bring the ticket anything and he needed a Midwesterner (and, oh yeah, Lyndon hated his guts). Meanwhile, New York Democrats, riven by fighting between the regulars and the reformers, had lost the governorship to Nelson Rockefeller and, in the city, were reduced to leaning uncomfortably on a mayoral administration, that of Robert Wagner (the second), that was running on empty – indeed, in 1965, Republican John Lindsay would wrest Gracie Mansion away. A star like Kennedy and a beleaguered party seemed a perfect fit, so Bobby “moved” to New York, setting up residency in one of the family’s homes, out in Glen Cove, even though he basically lived at the Carlyle until he bought his U.N. Plaza apartment.

It’s nice narrative symmetry, but in fact the parallel between Bobby and Hillary is not exact. Bobby did not find the New York waters entirely smooth. The carpetbagging charge was the most obvious and the first to hit; his supporters fetched up the fact that he’d lived in Riverdale for a while as a youngster. He got caught up, also, in the reformers-regulars fight – his posthumous image of progressive honor is a bit misleading, as concerns the Bobby of 1964, who was in the main the candidate of the party bosses. “Bobby had to work,” says Ronnie Eldridge, the West Side city councilwoman who was one of his reform supporters. “His brother had been assassinated, of course, there was a Kennedy legend, everybody felt sorry for him, and all that. But he had to fight for it. He was under attack.”

The Bobby precedent has cleared Hillary’s path, though, by making the residency point, for one, moot. Hillary, if she comes to New York, will face no such attacks, at least not from Democrats. “The president asked me what was the downside,” Rangel says. “He was concerned about residence. I told him Bobby Kennedy and Buckley had done that before” (that’s James Buckley he means, a GOP senator who filled the Kennedy seat in 1970. Bonus trivia question that will be popping up over the next year: Who held the seat from 1968 to 1970, after Bobby was killed? Upstate Republican Charles Goodell, appointed by Rocky). The Times editorial page, no great friend of La Clinton lately, opined that New York primaries should operate on “the general theory of the more the merrier, including those who move to New York to find work” – gee, who else could they have meant? And anyway, it’s certainly not a legal issue. Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, says there’s no real residency requirement to speak of for federal candidates. “She or anybody doesn’t have to be a resident until Election Day,” Daghlian says, adding that “you could be a resident just by moving into a hotel room.” In the Carlyle, say.

So that’s settled. And there aren’t intra-party feuds anymore, mainly because there aren’t enough Democratic activists even to have a feud anymore. And, of course, the state elected Kennedy in the end, bought its little acre of Camelot. There’s every sign that New York will offer her a kindred balm. “She’d be an extremely strong candidate,” says attorney Victor Kovner. “She’s enormously popular. She’s a great campaigner. She would evoke enormous excitement among Democrats of all stripes.” Even Post editorial-page editor John Podhoretz said on New York 1 that, “much to my disgust,” New York “would welcome her with open arms.”

New York likes what she represents (there is that welfare bill, but there aren’t enough Democrats around anymore to quibble about things like that, either); doesn’t much care who she or her husband sleeps with; feels palpably sorry for her; would love one more chance to prove itself less hypocritical and more effortlessly sophisticated than the nation’s gaseous capital, would get a kick out of being her giant base camp in the culture war that has swirled around her frequently re-coiffed head over the past eight years.

So there’s New York’s rationale. What’s hers? Here’s Ickes: “A lot of people” – this “lot” would presumably include both Ickes and Hillary – “would see this as a sort of race of redemption. It’s a multi-layered thing. Go back to when Bill Clinton first started running, you had the two-for-one thing – you know, how she said, you elect him, you get me too. Then there was the co-presidency thing. Then came the health-care fiasco, which was I guess mostly laid at her doorstep. Then she went underground a bit. Then she had the legal travails, the commodities-trading thing, and the questions about billing at the Rose Law Firm. Then came the pillorying of Hillary, you might say, and the constant effort to drive the president and Hillary out of office. For her to run and win a very, very prestigious seat would permit her supporters to say there was a lot more here than anybody thought, and you guys were wrong.”

Her supporters would indeed say this. She would probably refrain from saying it, but she’d certainly think it. And, though in one sense the possible elevation of Hillary is a complex sociological story that takes in everyone from Tammy Wynette to Ellen DeGeneres, in another sense it’s really that simple: Redemption. Without ever having run for office, she’s been through everything people who run for office have to go through, and more. It’s not as if she didn’t ask for it – through the remark Ickes cites, and things like her old crack about having better things to do than baking cookies, she did leap smack into the hurricane’s eye. But it’s fair to say, too, that the other side got a little rough with her. Okay, more than a little. It’s hard to think of things that would delight this political animal more than the knowledge that Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms would have to call her “colleague.” And, with 19 Republicans (out of 33 senators total) up for re-election in 2000, and 21 (again, out of 33) up in 2002, odds are decent that Democrats can recapture the Senate, and then they’d have to call her “Madame Chairwoman.” Redemption doesn’t come much bigger.

What no one knows at this point is what she thinks about this. Ickes says he talks to her regularly and insists that “she hasn’t given it any thought.” Rangel spoke to her about it on a trip to the Dominican Republic, after Hurricane Mitch. “She wasn’t offended, let me put it that way,” he says. “And she didn’t say it was impossible.”

Rangel said reporters and others in the Dominican Republic, hot on a rumor, started asking her about it, “and she smiled and said, ‘Don’t tell me Charlie Rangel’s got you too!’ ” She may just find it all amusing. Five percent of her may be waiting to see if anything like a groundswell builds. But this much is axiomatic: When politicians want to kill talk, really kill it, they say no.

Running for office, it turns out, has been on her mind before. Dick Morris says that in 1990, Bill Clinton was originally leaning toward not running for reelection as governor, and Hillary, says Morris, thought about giving it a go. “She commissioned me to do two polls about it,” Morris says. “They showed that while very popular, she hadn’t really carved out the independent image for herself that she has now. That conclusion infuriated her. She hated it. In fact they made me go back and do a second poll, with more carefully worded questions and so on. That came up with much the same thing.”

Obviously, developing a rationale means weighing these kinds of downsides. Right now, thanks to Vogue and Vanity Fair, she is at the peak of her cultural moment. This kind of luster tends to dull when one becomes a declared candidate. “Once you announce,” says Ickes, “your poll ratings drop fifteen or twenty points. And she knows that.” And, even if legal residency is not an issue, the question of a First Lady moving out of the White House, of woman moving out on husband, even that husband, is salient. “Can you just imagine the kind of speculation that would cause?” Stephanopoulos asks. “That would become the whole race – ‘What does this really mean?’ and all that sort of thing.”

Maybe; Stephanopoulos knows his Washington press corps, and the national reporters and cable shows would surely fulminate over this question. But maybe not; after all, the New York press corps is the one that decided that, on balance, Rudy Giuliani’s private life wasn’t a thing of consequence or interest. The Post might work this angle, but the Post has better toys to play with here, like that quote about Palestinian statehood, which it plastered on its wood. Besides, there is precedent of a sort: Guess which First Lady spent lots of time in Greenwich Village during part of her husband’s tenure (hint: She’s looking over Hillary’s and Rudy’s shoulders in this very magazine)? Besides that, it must be admitted that Hillary is half of a couple that’s turned social conventional wisdom on its head. If Bill can shoot up in the polls after what he did, there’s no reason she couldn’t hit 140 percent if she moved out on him.

There’s another problem, though. “Of course she’s enormously popular,” says Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of The Nation. “First of all, there’s the iconography of the situation, and then there are her own qualities. But she also has great baggage she comes with.” Navasky recalled 1979-80, when the press urged Ted Kennedy to take on Carter, writing that the nomination would be his for the asking, and then, from the day he announced, screamed Chappaquiddick. Navasky asks: “Is she in the line of Robert Kennedy, or is she in the line of Senator Bill Moyers and Senator Ted Sorensen and Senator Walter Cronkite, all of whom were supposed to be elected at some point or another?” Moyers and Cronkite never ran, but Sorensen did, in 1970; David Halberstam wrote a blistering attack on him in Harper’s, and Sorensen became one of the great flameouts of recent political history.

Halberstam says today that he was writing against “what I thought at the time was the worst of the Kennedy bullshit, the sense of entitlement and so forth.” He had also been wary of Bobby in ‘64, but realized later that “I was wrong. He really grew.” And now, with respect to Hillary? “The test is not fame,” he says. “Rather, it’s how good a public person one is. How much has the person been in the wars, how much has the person changed? Has she really been in the pit as a public person? The answer is dramatically yes.”

There wouldn’t be much questioning her qualifications. There would be some skepticism as to her rationale, but that would be skepticism she could handle, or at least prove wrong over the course of a campaign. But in all likelihood, she’d face one more barrier, and his name is Giuliani.

Hillary v. Rudy. It doesn’t quite have the seamless story line that would present itself if Hillary were to move to Georgia and run against Bob Barr, since Giuliani has put plenty of space between himself and the cultural right. But it’s still two icons who stand for pretty different things. Daughter of the Sixties against the Man Who Wants to Bring Back the Fifties. McGovernite versus He Who Jumped the Democratic Ship Because of McGovern. It Takes a Village versus Seal Off the Village.

“I don’t think she would have a prayer against Giuliani,” Morris says. “Giuliani is one tough campaigner. If they think that a former prosecutor is not going to dredge up every last detail of Whitewater and her legal transactions, they’re really kidding themselves. I think she knows this.” Besides, he adds, “I mean, we don’t know this for sure one way or the other, but there may still be a sealed indictment against her.” Now that would be a deal-breaker.

Democrats counter by saying that turnout for Hillary could be so massive, enthusiasm so seismic, that Giuliani or any Republican would simply be buried. “This is basically a Democratic state,” Liz Holtzman says. “If people don’t dislike the Democrat, as they did Mario Cuomo in 1994, I don’t see any good reason why a Republican should win. And you talk about enthusiasm. People will want to come out and vote for her. There’d be tremendous excitement.”

One scenario is hard to argue: Imagine black voter turnout for Hillary and against Rudy. Huge. Hillary Clinton, via her husband, sits on a record at which black voters, on paper, should cast a gimlet eye: Pro-death penalty, pro-welfare reform, this sort of thing. But it hasn’t hurt her husband’s popularity among blacks, and it sure won’t hurt hers. “He can’t run on crime, because crime’s gone down nationally under her and her husband,” Al Sharpton says. “If I was Hillary, I’d rob that from him. He couldn’t even run on welfare. I don’t say these things with pleasure, necessarily, but they’re so.”

Giuliani, against Hillary or anyone else, would probably run somewhat to the right of where he governs, which he has always done; think, for example, of the importance his campaigns have placed on the Orthodox Jewish vote. He’d definitely raise the carpetbagger issue. And Morris may be right about Whitewater and so forth, although that kind of campaign, against Hillary Clinton and in New York, carries the risk of backlash. Mostly, he’d run on his record. It is, as we know, a formidable one. He’d certainly do better among white voters in the city than your typical Republican, and chances are they’re ga-ga over him in the suburbs.

But his record is a mayor’s record. The Senate is something else, even putting aside the question – which, if he does run, will assuredly not be put aside – of whether his bearing is a senatorial one. “Senate races are about making a statement politically,” says David Doak, a Washington-based Democratic consultant. “They’re about philosophy and ideals. Mayoralties and governorships are about many things, about getting things done. I think a lot of people who voted for Giuliani because of squeegee men” – here, let’s note that Doak worked on David Dinkins’s campaigns – “wouldn’t necessarily vote for him for the United States Senate.”

To represent philosophy and ideals, Hillary Clinton just has to stand there. Her platform will involve education and health care and the standard run of issues, but really, the less specific she gets, the better. And speaking of Doak, who would be the cogs of a Hillary campaign? Maybe Doak, doing the media, or maybe Bob Squier or maybe Bob Shrum or maybe Mandy Grunwald. Certainly Ickes. In all likelihood Susan Thomases, Hillary’s best New York friend. Victor and Sarah Kovner. Rangel, as black liaison and as the guy (every campaign has one) who says the things about the other side that the candidate can’t afford to say. Throw in Maria Echaveste, White House deputy chief of staff, who’s from the Bronx. She’s married to election lawyer Stanley Schlein, who, perhaps with lawyer Henry Berger, would look after the legal paperwork. Where Ickes goes, you may find George Arzt, consultant and former aide to Ed Koch. Whither Arzt, you’ll find John LoCicero, another old Koch hand. Bring in Dennis Rivera, for troops and phone banks. Throw in maybe a couple of Chuck Schumer’s staff people, a couple from Mark Green’s office – hell, throw in everybody. Who’d say no?

Surely, they all dream of getting the call. But it’s only a dream, and it’s likely to remain so. Meanwhile, off to the side sits Nita Lowey, who, under other circumstances, would have been regarded as a perfectly satisfactory, even a quality, candidate.

Who is Nita Lowey? She grew up in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium. She raised her kids in Holliswood, Queens, “around the corner,” as fate would have it, from a family by the name of Cuomo. Then she moved up to Westchester, to Harrison. With no electoral experience, she ran for Congress in 1988, against a well-financed GOP incumbent named Joseph DioGuardi, and she beat him. Again in a rematch in 1992. Whatever she’s been doing for ten years, she’s been doing it well enough by her constituents’ lights that when she ran last year, she didn’t even have a Republican opponent. It has to be said at the very least that she has a feel for her district, which includes parts of … the Bronx, Queens, and Westchester.

“I’m looking very seriously at the Senate race,” Lowey says. “I’ve been encouraged by a lot of people to make the race – my county chairman, certainly, has been supportive, as have other county chairs. I’m talking to friends and supporters and other people and trying to figure out if it’s the best way for me to serve.” And, she notes, “I’ve made it very clear that if Hillary Clinton decides to run, the entire state party, including me, will be behind her.”

Lowey might even be a strong candidate against Giuliani – woman, suburban, moderate. She’s got personality, and the race would be lively.

But even the mere phrase “county chairman” brings the whole enterprise thuddingly back down to earth. County chairmen run races. Hillary would run a crusade. Crusades aren’t necessarily more successful, but they sure are more fun.

It Takes a . . . Carpetbagger