The canary

The fate of New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato might hinge on how strong the toxic blowback is from Capitol Hill's impeachment stink.


Joe Conason
October 20, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Of all the political impostors in what we will someday remember as the long Clinton witch-hunt, there have been few whose behavior seemed more self-evidently fraudulent than that of Alfonse D'Amato. His prolonged stint as chairman of the Senate Whitewater Committee -- a fishing expedition that ended in 1996 with an empty net -- was a turning point for both the junior senator from New York and the "scandal" he purported to investigate.

Presiding over hearings that proved nothing, the shrill D'Amato unintentionally exonerated the Clintons while driving down his own popularity in his home state. Just how loudly the hearings had backfired became evident that November, when Clinton trounced Bob Dole, the Republican nominee whose campaign D'Amato co-chaired, by an overwhelming margin in New York.

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For savvy voters (and many embarrassed Republicans), the Whitewater hearings served mainly as a reminder of D'Amato's own ethical shortcomings. While he demanded that the White House turn over every shred of paper that might incriminate the Clintons, he refused to release his own 1991 testimony before the Senate Ethics Committee, which reprimanded him for allowing his lobbyist brother to misuse D'Amato's Senate offices. (He still won't release his testimony, nor any of the other sealed evidence compiled by the Ethics Committee.)

Famed for his favors to wealthy contributors ever since he was first elected to the Senate in 1980, D'Amato playing the inquisitor could only elicit smirks from those familiar with his grungy career. So by the time President Clinton began his second term, D'Amato's poll numbers were deep in the danger zone below 40 percent. He was almost universally deemed the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in the Senate.

But now, two years later, he stands at least an even chance of winning a fourth term Nov. 3, as he is running in a dead heat with Rep. Charles Schumer, a moderate Democrat from Brooklyn. In what will almost certainly be the most expensive campaign of the midterm election, D'Amato appears to be emerging from the hole he dug for himself. How did he do it?

His main assets are constituent service and special interest money. Unlike New York's senior senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D'Amato operates a brilliantly effective home office. New Yorkers -- including liberal Democrats -- who need help with federal agencies go to D'Amato because Moynihan is so useless. But even Al D'Amato can't do enough favors for enough voters to ensure his reelection. So he collects enormous sums from those who want his vote, and uses the proceeds to disguise himself as a moderate Republican.

In this effort, principle is no obstacle, a maxim he has observed since the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in January. Formerly one of Bill and Hillary Clinton's harshest critics, he has kept his mouth grimly shut as he watched the president's approval ratings climb off the charts, especially in New York.

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Schumer, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, has declared forthrightly that he will vote against impeachment. D'Amato feebly replies that as a member of the president's "jury" in the Senate, he will take no position on the issue. In other words, he is in hiding both from his own Republican base as well as from the vast majority of New York voters who oppose impeachment.
This is merely part of a larger strategy to conceal his political character, as he typically does during every election cycle.

His current attempt to refurbish his image began two years ago, when he provoked a brief feud with Newt Gingrich by calling the House speaker a "political Ayatollah" of the far right. As the only national figure more disliked in New York than D'Amato himself, Gingrich provided a perfect target. Then the senator spent millions of dollars on television advertising for a state environmental bond issue. And later he spent even more to identify himself with the campaign against breast cancer.

The common purpose behind all these public-relations maneuvers was plain enough. D'Amato actually has few ideological differences with Gingrich or anyone else of that ilk. In 1997, for instance, he earned a rating of 100 percent from the Christian Coalition on issues that matter most to the religious right. His single largest contributor is Foster Friess, an investment banker who is also president of the secretive Council for National Policy, a group that includes all of the top leaders of the radical right; its past presidents include televangelist Pat Robertson and former Attorney General Edwin Meese.

Yet with a cheap rhetorical attack on Gingrich, D'Amato pretended to be fighting against the same extremist forces that can always rely on his vote when it really counts. His newfound environmentalism diverted attention from his dismally poor voting record (rated by the League of Conservation Voters at 29 percent). As for his breast cancer funding, maybe he does care about women's suffering in a male-dominated medical establishment. But that little crusade also distracted female voters from his unwavering opposition to reproductive freedom over the past two decades. With a 92 percent rating from the National Right-to-Life Committee and a 75 percent rating from the Christian right's Concerned Women of America, Alfonse does not qualify as a feminist.

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As the election drew closer, D'Amato went still further to conceal his right-wing allegiances. Seeking to distance himself from Republican bigots such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, D'Amato has reached out recently to gay and lesbian groups. He succeeded in charming leaders of the Human Rights Campaign, one of the major national gay organizations. His rating from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, however, is a minimal 27 percent. And rather ironically, the consultant running D'Amato's campaign is Arthur Finkelstein, a semi-closeted gay who has consistently helped elect the nation's most anti-gay politicians, including Sen. Jesse Helms.

Finkelstein, who has overseen every D'Amato campaign since 1980, knows only one way to campaign: a heavy rotation of harshly negative commercials about the "liberal" opponent. That is why D'Amato has spent most of his time since his last victory sucking up almost $20 million in contributions, much of it from the financial firms he regulates as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. (Naturally, he always votes to kill campaign finance reform.) After Schumer won the Democratic primary, Finkelstein and D'Amato executed their usual "liberal" attack strategy. But lately, they have shifted to accusing the driven, hard-working Schumer of missing too many votes in the House.

This sudden tactical shift is a sign of fear. D'Amato knows that Schumer stands a better chance of defeating him than any of his former rivals. Although Schumer's war chest is less than half the size of D'Amato's, he has amassed considerably more money than any previous challenger. His progressive voting record is far closer than D'Amato's to the sentiments of the mostly Democratic state electorate. And Schumer is a tough competitor who won't be intimidated by the incumbent's bullying tactics. It's a bad omen for D'Amato that the relatively unknown Brooklyn legislator has recently closed what was once a wide gap between them.

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The outcome probably will be determined by voter turnout, which will depend in turn on the level of popular disgust with the Republican Congress and its anti-Clinton obsession. That polarizing issue may push otherwise lazy Democrats and independents to the polls before 9 p.m. on Election Day. And if there is a backlash against impeachment, Al D'Amato just might be the first to feel its impact.


Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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Bill Clinton Newt Gingrich

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