The Washington Times
It was supposed to have been the most exciting Senate race since Lincoln met Douglas, threatening even to eclipse the presidential contest for raw political interest. As early as 18 months before the November 2000 elections, all eyes were on New York as the singular, controversial Hillary Rodham Clinton descended on the state to seek the seat of retiring Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan.
Really, what more could one want out of politics? Here was a sitting first lady stepping in an unprecedented way into electoral politics. Moreover, she was doing so in the aftermath of her husband’s impeachment and acquittal over lies about his embarrassing sexual misconduct. She was a carpetbagger setting forth in a state that fancied itself home to the fiercest media coverage in the nation. Her most likely opponent was the brilliant but quirky Republican mayor of New York, a man whose role at the forefront of the renaissance of the city came with an ego to match. And of course there was the Republican Party nationwide, for whom Mrs. Clinton had long ago successfully auditioned for the role of national villainess.
What could be better? But gradually, something very strange happened. In a contest that promised the zigs and zags of the unexpected, what was truly unexpected was what turned out to be the reality: It was frankly boring. And therein hangs a far more interesting tale.
It’s well told in Michael Tomasky’s new book, “Hillary’s Turn” (Free Press). He writes a weekly column for New York magazine, and this book is rich not only for its chronicle of the campaign but also as a window on the making of a modern politician.
There’s a very simple lesson to be learned from what turned out to be a lopsided victory for Mrs. Clinton. The key to her success was her discipline as a candidate.
More or less from the moment she began her “listening tour,” she had identified the issues she would run on (a familiar list of mainstream liberal causes, from education to Medicare, gun control to abortion rights) and how she would talk about them (what her issues would do for New Yorkers). This she did, endlessly, for 18 months, before small audiences and large, upstate and in the city, in the suburbs and in six or seven black churches every Sunday, in town meetings, in debates and in her nationally televised speech at the Democratic National Convention.
In turn, this proved to be the answer to the central problem of her candidacy: the larger-than-life stature she both benefited from and was dogged by. What does it mean to be known nationwide by your first name alone? And to be, accordingly, loved by some, an object of disappointment to others (Mr. Tomasky is funny describing Manhattan baby-boom women spending $165 an hour to talk to their therapists about Hillary), and reviled by still more? How to address the issue of the marriage and the tawdriness of the Monica Lewinsky affair? What about the suburban women telling focus groups they saw Hillary as “cold,” “self-serving,” “cunning,” “backstabbing,” “self-centered”?
There was some talk within the campaign about confronting the problem head-on, trying by political jujitsu to transform the “negatives” into “positives” by presenting a portrait of a strong woman who could get into people’s faces to do what was good for New York. In the end, though, Mrs. Clinton and her key advisers (first and foremost, it is quite clear from Mr. Tomasky’s account, Bill Clinton) rejected anything that smacked of gimmickry. Instead, it would be issues, issues, issues. Do not give voice to any stray thoughts at all. No news is good news. Don’t answer about the scandals and they’ll quit asking (and they did; so much for the attack-dog New York press corps). One might sum it up this way: Dare to be boring.
And so she was, to the press and pundits. But the endless cycles of repetition eventually got enough voters to overcome the initial skepticism manifest in her inability until near the end to crack the magic 50 percent mark in statewide polls. It also probably kept her from getting too distracted by the inevitable bumps along the way.
It was also exactly the right counter to the campaign her eventual opponent, Rick Lazio, was waging. His six-word message, he declared at one point, was “I’m running against Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Had she been acting like a superstar political diva, that might have worked, but not against the Hillary town-hopping upstate to talk about how to revive the local economy. Mr. Lazio had nothing much else to offer, however. And you can’t beat a horse with the horse’s “negatives” alone.
Would things have been different had Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided to run after all, rather than step aside after learning he had prostate cancer? We will never know. Mr. Tomasky makes a strong case that the only thing that really appealed to him about the race was taking on someone of her stature, not being a U.S. senator.
In any case, one thing that seems unlikely is that Mrs. Clinton would have been any more interesting. What she understood, and what not all politicians understand, and what people writing about politics often forget, is that the job of the politician is not to be interesting and entertaining; it’s to win.
Her first months in the Senate have been overwhelmed by the revulsion at her husband’s final days in office, in which she too has been tarnished. It’s hard to say what the lasting damage will be. The story isn’t over yet. But if her political troubles are of the sort that can be overcome by a disciplined and persistent effort to change the subject, we can be pretty sure that’s what she’ll bring to bear.