Politics & Policy

It’s About Hillary’s Ambition

And there's nothing below-the-belt about pointing it out.

Repeat after me: Carpet-bagging is not personal. Ideology is not personal. Carpet-bagging is not personal. Ideology is not personal. Carpet-bagging is not personal….(Seriously, if you need to say this a few more times click here. Thanks to the miracles of cyberspace, we can say it over and over again as many times as you need to, just so long as you get it through your head).

Perhaps the most annoying legacy of Bill Clinton is that he has taught politicians, mostly Democrats, to accuse their opponents of making personal attacks when they are merely making political attacks. During the primaries, when Bill Bradley pointed out to an audience that Al Gore used to favor tobacco companies, Gore shot back, “This smacks of the most desperate kind of negative campaigning.” If Bradley pointed out that Gore changed his position on abortion or had problems with campaign-finance issues, Gore would turn to the audience and say, “I suppose that wasn’t a personal attack either?”

Of course it wasn’t. And it’s not personal to point out that Hillary has no business running for the Senate from New York either. But don’t tell that to the Hillary campaign. Hillary’s surrogates fanned out across the airwaves to defend their delicate candidate’s sensibilities. Spokesman Howard Wolfson, who looks like a feral-toothed extra from a Mad Max movie (see, that was personal) denounced Rick Lazio’s “vicious personal attacks” on Hillary Clinton. “I’m shocked by the approach they are taking,” he says. “They are so overwhelmed by their hatred for her. I guess you have to run a negative campaign when you’re a Gingrich Republican with a record that’s too extreme for New York.” Harold Ickes, too, deplores the fact that Rep. Lazio has started his campaign with personal insults and invective. Hillary herself issued a statement saying, “I was a little disappointed yesterday that my latest opponent has already started hurling insults instead of offering ideas … I am sorry that my opponent couldn’t even get through his announcement speech without going on the attack.”

Lazio’s announcement speech was no tribute to Hillary Clinton, but there was nothing below-the-belt about it either: “I can’t call on Air Force One whenever I need a ride. But New Yorkers can count on me and call on me whenever they need something to get done.”

“My opponent is a liberal and a proud one and I respect her for that. But make no mistake about this, she is no more a New Democrat than a New Yorker.”

“She offers the big government ideology that crippled New York in the 1980′s. I do not believe we want to enter this new century pledging allegiance to the liberal ideas that so painfully failed us in the last century.”

Bob Schieffer, host of Face the Nation, seems to think that the New Democrat line might establish a troubling “tenor.” “Is this what the campaign’s going to be about?” he asked nervously. Cokie Roberts read from a fundraising letter and asked Governor Pataki, “Is this going to be a nasty campaign against Hillary Clinton?” Not one interviewer that I’ve seen has bothered to ask one of Hillary’s surrogates what was “vicious” or “personal” about Lazio’s attacks.

This wouldn’t bother me that much except for the fact that virtually every television and print report about the Clinton campaign’s strategy acknowledges that it will try to paint Lazio as an “extremist” Newt Gingrich lapdog who wants to send the country back to the Dark Ages. But nobody seems to have a problem with that. Sure, George Stephanopoulos thinks it might be a tough sell, but he seems to be saying, “go for it and see if it sticks.” Indeed, nobody will even call it an “attack,” let alone a “vicious personal” one. Which is odd, since I am sure that most journalists at ABC or the New York Times think it is a far worse thing to be called a “Gingrich clone” than to be called a “liberal.”

Still, I can understand why the press and the Clinton campaign think accusations of being “too liberal” are below-the-belt. Liberals are convinced that liberalism is ennobled by its complexity. Have you ever noticed how whenever someone says, “I don’t believe in labels,” they turn out to be run-of-mill liberals? You see, nasty conservatives want to impose “false choices” and paint everything in black and white, while liberals understand how clever their own ideas really are. Or, as Robert Kuttner recently wrote in The American Prospect, “conservative ideology boils down to a simple idea: Markets Work,” but “liberal counter-ideology takes at least a paragraph.”

Kuttner wasn’t talking about Hillary, but the point remains. For the left, reducing the artistic complexity of liberalism into a bumper sticker is just so much demagogic butchery. This is nonsense, of course. Conservatism and libertarianism are actually based on the idea that life is too complex for the intended consequences of government planners to be easily fulfilled. It’s the left that upholds the notion that experts can redesign and redefine social institutions with ease.

Anyway, that’s grist for a different mill. The point here is that if Hillary is offended by the accusation that she’s not a New Democrat, she should tell us why. If she doesn’t think it’s an insult, she could explain that too. In fact she could learn something from Mr. Lazio, who took their whiny “He voted for the Contract with America” Jihad and turned it into a “so what?” In interview after interview (he did all five Sunday shows yesterday) he was asked, “they accuse you of signing the Contract with America,” or something similar. And he responded, yeah, so? “I don’t know which one of the things on the Contract With America that they are against. Is it the balanced budget?” he responded to Wolf Blitzer.

Then there’s the carpetbagger issue. There’s nothing wrong with ringing Hillary’s bell as often as possible on the fact that she has no business running in New York. The Clinton campaign claims she is qualified to run because she “cares” about the same issues as New Yorkers and they reject the “vicious personal attack” that this has anything to do with her ambition. But there is not a single intelligent person I have met, regardless of ideology, who actually believes that Hillary’s ambition isn’t the central issue here. Nobody who takes politics seriously can believe otherwise. It is her ambition — and nothing else — that distinguishes her. After all the ideological distance between Hillary and, say, congresswoman Nita Lowey — the very liberal Westchester congresswoman who would have been the Democratic nominee if Hillary had decided to run in a state she lived in — is so small that it makes the space between Jerry Nadler and Al Sharpton in a bear-hug look like a canyon.

Liberals, long bothered and wearied by the fact that we live in a republic, might find carpetbagging no big deal. They believe in “one nation” politics and the idea that the Commerce Clause is a blank check for Federal interference in every nook and cranny of American life. But the fact is that there is meaning behind our constitutional order. We do not need an aristocracy of concern or intellect to flit about the country looking to do good for the little people where they find them. Hillary may think it’s unfair for Lazio to bring up the fact that she’s running from New York because she has redefined the “politics of meaning” as her own quest for personal meaning, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to buy it. Who gives a rat’s ass about Hillary’s concern for “New York’s issues”? She is really running to be the Senator for Hillary Clinton.

And by the way, if she cares so much about the issues that affect New York, how is it that in her manifesto of compassionate liberalism, It Takes a Village, she doesn’t mention New York once but manages to find plenty of room for the rest of the globe, including Bangladesh, France and — a real sin for a real New Yorker — New Jersey? (See G-file 7/08/99).


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