New York air war

Clinton and Lazio duke it out on television. Which one is telling the truth?

By Jake Tapper

Published June 20, 2000 8:00AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton has wisely decided not to make the New York Senate campaign about which candidate you might prefer to have sitting shotgun with you on a road trip. The very fact that Clinton -- one of the most famous women in politics, ever -- is only running even in the polls with her mostly unknown opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, speaks volumes about Clinton's popularity, as National Review editor Rich Lowry has noted.

So last week, Clinton focused on policy, spelling out a number of differences between her political views and Lazio's. She even unveiled some TV ads that address two of these differences, on an HMO patients bill of rights and on so-called "hate crimes" legislation.

"News update," says the first ad. "The Senate just voted to kill the patients bill of rights ... by two votes. Hillary supports it. In the House, Rick Lazio voted against the bill, siding with the Republican leadership. Rick Lazio ... the more you know, the more you wonder."

The second ad, addressing a statewide "hate crimes" law that passed the state Senate in Albany earlier this month, says that "Hillary fought for the bill" while "Rick Lazio was opposed. But five days after it passed, he flip-flopped. The [New York] Post called it an 'about-face.'" Again, the ad concluded with the tag line about blank-slate Lazio. "The more you know, the more you wonder."

Immediately, Lazio's campaign assailed the accuracy of the ads. "Both of these accusations are clearly false," said a Lazio 2000 press release. "This is a desperate act by a desperate campaign," said Lazio's campaign manager, Bill Dal Col. "History teaches us that the first victim of a Clinton campaign is the truth and that is apparently the case in this race as well."

But after closer inspection, the only thing that seems at all damaged is Lazio's fragile ego. Clinton's ads couldn't be more meticulously accurate. Once you remove the partisan characterizations and the zealous adjectives from her Wednesday speech, Clinton's charges are right on the money. And they're smart politics in the Empire State, where there are 2 million more Democratic voters than Republican ones.

Just as voting against a "flag burning amendment" or tax cuts often puts Democrats on the defensive, Clinton is putting Lazio on the defensive on 15-second sound-bite issues that might work against a Republican. And they do seem to be working; Lazio's responses have been uncommonly lame.

Instead of explaining why he feels the way he does on these issues, Lazio accused Clinton of misrepresenting his record. She wasn't. He was. Moreover, Lazio is obviously concerned about Clinton's attacks. As the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported on Monday, Lazio has asked the GOP House leadership for permission to vote against various GOP House appropriations bills so that Clinton can't use them against him. Because, as Lazio must know, any time Clinton can make his Republicanism an issue, she has succeeded at drawing attention away from her liberalism, political baggage and chilly demeanor.

The truth is, Lazio and Clinton are not that far apart on most general issues of policy. Both support the death penalty, gun control and abortion rights.

If you ask Lazio where he and his opponent differ, he'll point out that he's a lifelong New Yorker and she's a Janey-come-lately. He'll say that he's a moderate "mainstream" Republican while Clinton's a leftist. He'll cite his opposition to, and Clinton's support for, the legality of the late-term procedure known as "partial birth abortion." He'll cite Clinton's ill-fated healthcare proposal. He'll point out to Jewish voters that she once supported the creation of a Palestinian state, and was disappointingly mum when Yasir Arafat's wife accused Israelis of poisoning Palestinian children. And all of these will be fair shots.

But Lazio remains an unknown to most voters, and Clinton has been aggressively trying to define him as a conservative. Clinton's original, unsupported argument that Lazio was a lieutenant in Newt Gingrich's army didn't seem to hold much water. Compared with Gingrich, Lazio's a moderate.

So Clinton changed her sales pitch. Her new ads, as well as a speech she gave Wednesday at a fundraising breakfast, provided the backup material for the attempted Gingrich albatross. Moderates, after all, sometimes vote the way of their party -- especially Lazio, who works closely with Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, as an assistant leader as well as with Majority Whip Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, as a deputy whip.

For instance, the crux of the controversy over the "patients bill of rights" bill -- both the one that passed the House last October that Lazio opposed, and the one that failed by two votes to pass the Senate two weeks ago -- is whether or not a patient has the right to sue his or her HMO.

Lazio opposes that right, believing that it would "drive medical costs through the roof by encouraging unlimited lawsuits with unlimited damages." But other New York Republicans, such as Reps. Peter King, Sue Kelly, Ben Gilman and Jack Quinn, disagreed with Lazio's assessment and voted for the bill. In fact, 68 House Republicans -- a full third of the conference -- disagreed with Lazio on this, and the bill passed the House 275-151.

As Lazio's overheated press release points out, instead of voting for that particular bill, he "voted for two separate versions of the Patient's Bill of Rights."

But those two versions did not allow patients to sue their HMOs, and those were not the bills considered controversial. And instead of trying to explain his opposition to the bill, Lazio opted to fuzz his positions.

And he did so in a less-than-truthful way. In his press release, Lazio even claimed that the patients bill of rights bill he voted against belonged to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., a bill co-sponsor. But in truth, the bill Lazio voted against was truly drafted and offered by the conservative Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga.

Clinton has also hammered Lazio on the issue of "hate crimes." But on that issue as well, Clinton's representation of Lazio's position is more accurate than Lazio's defensive whining.

Plenty of people who don't support the murder of minorities feel that "hate crimes" bills tread perilously close toward legislating against what people are thinking. Even if the criminals in question are thinking vile thoughts while committing unspeakable acts, many non-bigots think that the government should stick to punishing acts, not thoughts.

Lazio, a former prosecutor, says that he prefers using "hate crimes evidence in the sentencing phase of the trial process rather than creating a new series of laws." This may even be the more constitutionally responsible position.

The problem for Lazio is that this nuanced explanation also means that he opposes "hate crimes" legislation. And that means that Clinton can say that he does. Perhaps realizing this, Lazio changed his position earlier this month. Arguing that "some legislation is better than none," he came out in support of the New York law almost a week after it passed the state Senate.

And, as Clinton's TV ad correctly points out, the New York Post -- not exactly the house organ of the first lady's campaign -- recorded this turnaround on June 13 in an article titled "Rick switches his stand on hate crimes."

So while Lazio continues to whine about "false, negative ads," Clinton is not being false, and is only being nominally negative, by campaign standards. She is honing in on a couple of carefully chosen issues to help make Lazio into a zealot, and Lazio is fumbling for a response.

In a new 30-second TV ad, unveiled this week, Lazio repeats the claim that Clinton's "ads are simply untrue. I voted for a patients bill of rights and I oppose hate crimes." But Lazio's ad is more misleading than Clinton's original attacks. Yes, he did vote for "a" patients bill of rights bill, but he didn't vote for the one that everybody means when they say "patients bill of rights bill." And who on earth, outside of the Klan, doesn't "oppose hate crimes"?

Clinton has, however, made her share of egregiously misleading statements about Lazio. At her speech last week, Clinton revealed her self-righteous side, ascribing policy differences to coldheartedness. "Time and time again, my opponent has voted against the interests of New York's women, children and families," she said.

But in ads, and in areas in last week's speech where Clinton outlines her specific policy differences with Lazio, she is solid and accurate. "My opponent has called gun licensing extreme," she said -- accurately -- in her speech.

"He has voted against providing funding for poor women even in the cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother. He has voted against access to abortion for women serving in our military even when they wanted to use their own funds." Also true.

She pointed out that the next president will appoint up to three Supreme Court justices, that Gov. George W. "Bush has said that his two favorite Supreme Court justices are [conservatives Antonin] Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas," and that she is "worried about a new Supreme Court, nominated by a Republican president and confirmed by a Republican Senate."

And indeed, such a scenario (not exactly a rah-rah for Vice President Al Gore's chances) would likely bring yea votes from a Sen. Lazio and nays from a Sen. Clinton.

Lazio called Clinton's speech "attacks designed to fool New Yorkers about my record." But on the issues Clinton is focusing on, the one who seems to misunderstand his record is Lazio himself. On Monday, Lazio tried to jujitsu Clinton's attacks by slamming her for "flip-flop[ing] on negative campaigning." Citing a book called "The Unique Voice of Hillary Rodham Clinton," Lazio's campaign cited Clinton's paraphrase of Lee Atwater's deathbed repentance in which he called out for the world to "love each other a little more, care about each other and get away from that kind of politics."

"It seems that Mrs. Clinton's heartfelt plea for an end to 'the politics of personal destruction' was forgotten as soon as her lead in the polls evaporated," said campaign manager Dal Col. "Her complaining about negative campaigning while launching false, negative attack ads is hypocrisy of the highest order. She should be ashamed of herself."

Dal Col and Lazio can whine all they want, but Clinton's ads are not false. And just by discussing them, they're playing Hillary's game.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton