An irrational edge can be heard in Republican voices whenever discussion turns to the subject of Hillary Rodham Clinton's possible candidacy for the U.S. Senate. After more than seven wild years on the national stage, both Clintons undeniably provoke a certain craziness among their frustrated conservative adversaries. So ask the Republicans how they feel about Hillary running for the New York seat being vacated by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and what you will hear is the sort of tortured logic offered on CNBC's "Rivera Live" last week by their national chief, Jim Nicholson.
The affable RNC chairman gamely insisted that he is just delighted by the prospect of a Clinton candidacy next year, because Hillary will draw money and attention away from presumed presidential candidate Al Gore. Nicholson probably takes comfort from gossip about unnamed advisors to the vice president who supposedly are dismayed by the Hillary boomlet in New York for the same reasons he articulated. And it may be true that some in the Gore camp, stung by their man's recent difficulties, are looking around for someone else to blame. The president's well-meaning but foolish telephone call to the New York Times about Gore's style problem surely didn't help, either.
But Nicholson's Hillary-hurts-Al thesis quickly starts to disintegrate under informed scrutiny.
Absent Hillary's entry in the race, the New York Senate seat was going to be the Republicans' for the taking. But with her in, the seat would be heavily contested, and hard for the GOP to win. Instead of the prospect of a Democratic Senate candidate struggling to raise money, her party would field a celebrity who can easily bring millions of dollars into the country's most expensive media market. The presence of a national figure who evokes deep loyalty in the Democratic base on the ballot in a major state will bring out additional thousands of blacks, Latinos and women on Election Day 2000.
If Jim Nicholson is depending on scandal fatigue or general disillusionment with the Clintons to turn voters off, he must be confusing New York with his home state of Colorado. The president won New York state by wide margins in 1992 and 1996. His approval ratings in the state (not just in the liberal Democratic city) have consistently ranged 10 to 20 points above the national average, as have the first lady's. When Charles Schumer defeated Alfonse D'Amato last year, despite the incumbent Republican's overwhelming financial advantage, he did so by identifying himself closely with both Clintons. The only woman who spent more time on the stump with Schumer than Hillary Clinton was his wife.
There are potential pitfalls to be navigated by Hillary and her advisors if and when she does declare her candidacy, although few of them have anything to do with the New York venue. She would be the first first lady to run for elected office, a status that would carry special burdens. What will Hillary do when the administration proposes policies that are unpopular with the New York electorate? What will she say if she doesn't agree with a position taken by her husband or his chosen successor? What will protect her from the vagaries of a sudden economic downturn or an unsuccessful conclusion to the war in Kosovo?
Besides carrying all the baggage of being President Clinton's wife, she will also be toting a carpetbag. Most New Yorkers already have processed the fact that she is from out-of-town, and it may not matter much next year. But that could change if she blurts out something that suddenly reminds New Yorkers of the cultural and political distance between Arkansas and Albany.
Her opponent will confront serious obstacles too, however, several of which have nothing to do with her. The New York Republicans are badly divided by an ongoing feud between Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki. That dispute will have to be settled in a primary between Giuliani and a champion from the Pataki faction, possibly even the governor himself. The more competitive and nasty that contest becomes, the more Giuliani will have to spend and the more damaged he will be when and if he wins the nomination. (Worse still for the Republicans, the mayor, who still enjoys a modicum of popularity among white voters in the city, might lose.)
Giuliani's nightmare won't end with the primary either. His claim to liberal and moderate support rests with the Liberal Party, a tiny but significant entity that he controls through the patronage of its leadership. The perennial joke about the Liberal Party is that it is neither liberal nor a party, but it does possess a statewide ballot line that could deliver to Giuliani some traditional Democrats who cannot bring themselves to pull the GOP lever.
Yet if Giuliani accepts the Liberal Party line, he will almost surely forfeit the nomination of the Conservative Party, another patronage-swilling outfit that will have a line on the November 2000 ballot. The Conservatives may or may not countenance the mayor's soft line on abortion and gay rights, but its leaders won't endorse a candidate who is also running as a big-L Liberal. A strong Conservative spoiler nominee could deprive the Republican of more than 5 percent -- more than enough to decide a close election.
Finally there is New York's Right-to-Life Party, formed years ago because the Conservative Party seemed insufficiently pure on the abortion issue. Neither Giuliani nor Pataki can expect to get the Right-to-Life nomination and ballot line. That could cost the Republican another 2 or 3 points.
Such are the mundane realities that lie beneath all the hysterical blather about the Hillary phenomenon. Still, her victory is not assured by any means. Even her friends have wondered aloud why she would subject herself to the unwelcoming New York media and the possibility of defeat. Cynics may believe otherwise, but the truth is that the first lady isn't merely looking for another job. She enjoys political combat and believes in what she is fighting for; that is the foundation of the powerful support from New York Democrats that has brought her to the brink of announcing her campaign.
As for Al Gore, it's true that he suffers from a dull and blurry image; his message, whatever that may be, isn't exciting the Democratic electorate. But the Gore advisors should stop complaining about Hillary and devote themselves to the improvement of their boss. A presidential candidate who worries about being overshadowed by a Senate hopeful looks and sounds like a loser. Hillary can help Gore more than she hurts him. He should learn to make the most of the remarkable woman who is almost certain to be his political companion.