NEW YORK—“To think of all they’ve put us through—and now they won’t even go away. Who are these people? And why do they think they are necessary to us?” So said a nice liberal Democrat from Manhattan, colorfully indignant recently at Hillary Clinton’s intention to become a senator from the state of New York. Most of the women I know feel the same way. One, a writer and reporter who votes Democratic, told me, “This is how I feel: Lady, keep your hands off my state.” These people are Mrs. Clinton’s base.
Their resistance is understandable. For Mrs. Clinton to launch this candidacy because (as a conservative would see it) she wants to fill the vacuum in her life with our money and our freedom, to launch it (as a liberal might put it) because she’s working out some revenge psychodrama and thinks New York should pay for the therapy;
To say to a state that you have no connection to, no history with, no previously demonstrated interest in—to say to a state whose greatest city you have treated for seven years as your own personal cash machine, a city where your greatest impact has been the traffic nightmares you cause as you motorcade north from Wall Street to Park and 96th in your relentless search for campaign money—
To say to this great state full of gifted people that you deserve to be its senator is an act of such mad boomer selfishness and narcissism that even from the Clintons—the Gimme and Getme of American politics—it is an act of utter and breathtaking gall.
And of course she may well win.
Modern people have a way of absorbing the brazen, factoring it in, in time discounting it. For some New Yorkers, gall isn’t a flaw but a lifestyle choice, one of the seven habits of highly effective people. Mrs. Clinton is a star, and New York likes stars. She will have the support of unions, and New York has unions. She is slippery and pragmatic and won’t play the part of the liberal. She has a human shield in the Secret Service, and won’t be as exposed as other candidates. She’ll raise a lot of money with ease, and she’ll have top-flight media.
She is already running a shrewdly calculated campaign. Take the not so slowly accelerating number of trips to New York that began three months ago—Hillary with children, Hillary at a school, Hillary meeting with local mayors, etc. She knows that this early in a campaign everything is a blur on a TV screen; the blur-impression she is creating is that Mrs. Clinton is here a lot. In another three months it will be Hillary kind of lives here . . . she must have an apartment here . . . she sure cares about us. On Election Day a year and a half from now, some New Yorkers will think she is already our senator, running for re-election. Take the almost accidental slipping into “we New Yorkers” and “our state.” When she first did this two months ago, she knew it would be the lead on the 11 o’clock news: Was it a slip or a declaration? Hillary Clinton says we New Yorkers lead the nation in apple production. The next time she said it, smaller headline. Now she says it with no headline, just the steady drumbeat—we, our, us.
All of this is an attempt to create an impression that will fool the distracted. And if there’s one thing the Clintons have learned in 25 years in politics, it’s that a lot of voters are distracted. This is the word they use when they’re being polite.
What comes next? How will she run? As we think about this, we should keep in mind Nora Ephron’s comment of some years back: “No matter how cynical I get, I just can’t keep up.”
When Mrs. Clinton announces, she will make a virtue of necessity and request, with a straight face, that she be treated like any other candidate in New York. (Upcoming headline from the New York Press: “Welcome Ms. Putzhead!”) But many people, as she knows, will find it hard to oblige. They can’t help treating a first lady with particular respect.
There will be a war room—there is always a war room with the Clintons—staffed by spinners. They will tell her to act out humility. “Be modest on the stump—admit you don’t know everything. That’s how to put it, ‘everything.’ Say, ‘I love New York and I want to be its advocate, to speak for this state in a national platform and uphold its interests in Washington. But I’m not gonna pretend I know everything. So I want to hear your concerns, so we can begin our dialogue.’”
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There will be a speech in which she talks about the first time she came to New York, and saw the glittering towers, and fell in love with the vitality and energy on the streets, and hoped one day to return.
The carpetbagger issue will be cleverly spun. George Will asked Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) on Sunday if the Founders didn’t intend a senator from a state actually to be from and of that state. Mr. Schumer said the Founders in their wisdom left it to the states to formulate their own residency requirements. Then he delivered a little homily that was marvelous in its audacity. New York, he said, is full of immigrants who came here to follow their dream. And Hillary too comes here as an immigrant, eager to work and contribute. Mr. Schumer seemed to be road-testing a line. She will use it. Drawing a parallel between herself and new Americans will align her with a growing and significant part of the electorate. Look for speeches in which she speaks of “We newcomers to New York . . .”
Her vinegary, experienced aides will fight like tigers. Harold Ickes, abused in the past by the Clintons, has what appears to be battered-wife syndrome—I can’t leave, he needs me!- -but is a serious ideologue who makes serious use of derived power. James Carville will be even worse than usual. Mr. Carville is on a roll, having just helped to elect Ehud Barak in Israel. He’ll be in charge of spinning her support for a Palestinian state and privately reassuring Jewish supporters. Watch for statements from Mr. Barak a year from now that Israel doesn’t feel at all threatened by Mrs. Clinton’s position.
Because Mrs. Clinton is loyal not to place but to position, she will easily make the leap from patronizing Hot Springs to patronizing Staten Island. She will hide her condescension well and speak to the locals with warmth and humor. The old good-natured crowing about how Arkansas has the biggest watermelons in the country will become new good-natured crowing about the best cannoli in the world.
It will be hard for Republicans to blast her positions in advance, because her pollsters haven’t told her what they are yet. But she will campaign as a moderate. She will stand with police union members on the steps of medium-sized city halls and deliver speeches in which she supports community policing, the death penalty and a ban on “cop killer” bullets. She will stand with nurses’ union members under banners that say “Better Health Care for All” and say we have to fight “so that the hard working people of New York aren’t bankrupted by hospitals and ignored by HMOs.” There will be no specifics.
She will spend a lot of the campaign in grade schools, reading to children and speaking with indignation about how “the forces of cynicism and shortsightedness” want to “take money from our public schools to finance their experiments”—vouchers, charter schools—”and leave our new citizens, our immigrants and those who have been left behind in a brutally broken system.”
She will tirelessly front for the teacher’s unions and oppose the school-liberation movement that she knows would probably help the children she claims to stand for. But she will hew to the party line, gambling that no one will nail her on it.
Which brings us to the media. While they are not in the tank for Mrs. Clinton, they will practice a rampant, subtle, unspoken self censorship. No one in the elite media, the networks and big stations, the national magazines or big newspapers will go after her. They don’t like her, but they associate themselves with her politics, and they will not press her on her previous statements, on the financial scandals, the hidden billing records, the private eyes, the Republican FBI files illegally gotten by the former barroom bouncer she hired. They will congratulate themselves on avoiding sleaze and innuendo. In return they’ll get exclusive interviews.
Intrepid reporters who break from the pack will be reduced to yelling “What about Juanita Broaddrick?” as Mrs. Clinton hurries by the rope line. They’ll be called hecklers and harassers; NBC, CBS and ABC will do pieces on “Hillary Faces the Gauntlet,” taking a wry look at the famously irreverent New York press. Cut to the guy yelling “How did you make that hundred grand?” and then a close-up of Hillary being interviewed by a sympathetic anchor. She’ll says she understands how passionate people get about politics, but that our political process has gotten uglier, which is sad. She will be noble. She may bite her lip.
The entire campaign will be animated by the central insight she has derived in the years since 1991: Voters can be fooled, and mesmerized by repetition. A word here on the strange way they learned. Twenty years ago Ronald Reagan used words and events to communicate truths: America is good; democracy is the best form of government; the government should be our servant and not our master; the Cold War can be won.
Hillary’s generation of liberal political operatives watched, learned and added a variation: They would use words and images not to reveal but to obscure, not to clarify but to confuse. They would mislead their way to power. They felt they were justified: They didn’t think anything Mr. Reagan said was true, and yet the people supported him. Ergo they were manipulated. Ergo we will manipulate too.
Hillary’s New York campaign will show whether they’ve run this way of campaigning into the ground, or turned it into yet another victory.