HILLARY RODHAM Clinton is to some a role model and to others Lady Macbeth writ large on the national political stage. But now, regardless of how you view her, she’s something else altogether. As far as New York politics go, she is the kingmaker, the person who can make the political fortunes of others rise — or fall. The last person to hold that rank was Clinton’s old nemesis Senator Al D’Amato. It was D’Amato, remember, who recruited George Pataki, a relatively anonymous state legislator from Peekskill, New York, to run against Governor Mario Cuomo back in 1994.
New York’s junior senator recently arranged the circumstances that prompted hot-shot candidate Andrew Cuomo to drop out of the race for New York governor. The move cleared the way for New York Comptroller Carl McCall’s easy victory on Tuesday. McCall, New York State’s highest-ranking African-American politician, will face a heavily favored Pataki in November. While Clinton never endorsed McCall, shortly before Cuomo dropped out of the race it became obvious that she was backing him. Last Friday, Senator Clinton and her husband made an appearance at the New York State Fair in Syracuse. Also present was Cuomo, but he never got a photo-op with the Clintons. Three days later, Senator Clinton marched in the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn, with McCall at her side. The wood of Tuesday’s New York Post — illustrated with a color photo of the two politicians together at the parade — said it all: IT’S MCCALL OVER ANDY: HILLARY SNUB COOKS ANDY. Cuomo’s candidacy didn’t last through the day.
The implications of Senator Clinton’s latest maneuver go well beyond the borders of the Empire State. The efficacy and skill with which Clinton navigates New York State politics means that her presence in New York has fully taken root, and she’s throwing herself into the hurly-burly of state politics in a way alien to the man she replaced in the Senate, the professorial Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who held the Senate seat for almost a quarter-century). By contrast, after only two years of elective office in New York, Clinton is increasingly seen as the most powerful Democrat in the state.
Moving forward, Senator Clinton faces two immediate tasks: 1) to bring a Democratic governor to New York; and 2) to ensure that New York City gets the 2004 Democratic National Convention. (Regarding the second, she’s taken on Democratic powerhouse Senator Ted Kennedy, who’s pushing to bring the convention to Boston). If she accomplishes these two goals, considerable pressure will be on her to run for president in 2008 — if not in 2004.
TO UNDERSTAND how far Clinton has come in the three years since she entered electoral politics in her own right, go back to July 1999, when she announced her candidacy at Moynihan’s Upstate New York farm. Her run for office was considered by most observers a novelty act at best, an exercise in power-grabbing as marital therapy at worst. Indeed, just four months after getting in the race, her campaign was on the brink of collapse (see "Early Frost," News and Features, November 25, 1999). But Clinton campaigned relentlessly throughout the state, methodically wooing constituency after constituency. She outlasted New York mayor Rudy Giuliani — who dropped out after news of his extramarital affair and prostate cancer broke — and outplayed his replacement, the lightweight Rick Lazio, then a four-term congressman from Long Island.
For a time, Clinton appeared content to establish herself in her own right in the Senate (co-sponsoring a new welfare bill that, like the old one, contained work requirements) and to defer on matters of state politics to New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer. She seemed to be patterning herself after Moynihan, who had an intellectual bearing and a national profile on Capitol Hill, and who assumed that the more pedestrian D’Amato, a/k/a "Senator Pothole" would manage state-politics horse-trading. Indeed, the aggressive Schumer, always alive to real or perceived political threats, tried to outflank Clinton in the gubernatorial race. In something of a surprise move, he endorsed McCall at the end of July; the spin was that in so doing, Schumer had simultaneously made himself look good with New York’s influential African-American community, which overwhelmingly supports McCall’s candidacy, and gained a tactical advantage over the junior senator. Because Cuomo had served as HUD secretary in the Clinton administration, he was presumed to be her candidate — a position expected to hurt the junior senator with black voters.
"She knows what Schumer is doing," one anonymous prominent Democrat told the New York Post. "Trying to build himself up at her expense with the black political establishment, which has lined up behind McCall." His endorsement was, accordingly, seen as a naked play for the African-American vote, key to primary victories in New York State. Schumer faces re-election in 2004.
In the end, of course, Clinton had the last word, so to speak, by nudging Cuomo out of the race to make room for McCall. Certainly, her not-so-subtle maneuver will be remembered much longer than will Schumer’s early endorsement.
Meanwhile, Clinton has consistently upstaged Schumer since entering New York’s political realm — even with his base of support in the Jewish community. The former first lady, whose Senate campaign was nearly derailed after she stood idly by as Suha Arafat, wife of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, accused Israel of deliberately poisoning the water supply of Palestinian children, has reinvented herself as a steadfast supporter of Israel. In early June, Senator Clinton gave a major address to the Orthodox Union in New York, a high-profile gathering of some of the staunchest and most committed supporters of Israel — and most effective political fundraisers in New York. When Schumer learned of Clinton’s upcoming role in the event, his office browbeat the group for an opportunity to speak as well (a no-no in the world of philanthropic dinners, where the rule is generally one senator per dinner). Unwilling to anger such a powerful — and unforgiving — politician as Schumer, the group permitted him to deliver a brief address near the end of the program. But by all accounts Clinton stole the show, proclaiming, "I will do everything I can to support Israel and to make sure that America is prepared for our own war against terrorism. We must win this war for the sake of civilization."
Now that Clinton’s actions helped drive Cuomo out of the race last week, she is cementing relationships with another key constituency in New York politics and one that can inoculate her from cries of encroaching conservatism due to her support for Israel: key African-American leaders in New York, such as Congressman Charles Rangel of Harlem. Taken together, her aid to McCall and her support of Israel make her the rare Democrat who can excite passion among two of the party’s most important constituencies — groups that have experienced friction this campaign season, particularly in the congressional race of Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, a critic of Israel whose father (a Georgia state rep) infamously blamed her defeat on "J-E-W-S." In doing all this, Clinton has positioned herself well both within New York and outside the state.
"Hillary’s the big winner here," says one highly placed Democrat. "Having helped move Andrew out strengthens her hand immeasurably with African-Americans. It cements her ties to African-Americans nationally and immunizes her from attacks on the left."
RIGHT NOW, the general attitude among other Democrats toward Clinton, a candidate who wowed the attendees at the Democratic Leadership Council’s meeting in late July, is one of respect but not of fear that she’s going to swipe their political lunches. Most fellow Democrats are taking seriously Clinton’s vow to remain a senator — and not seek higher office during her first term. Almost everybody mentions the "pledge" Clinton made during her Senate campaign to serve out her term.
Certainly, a pledge is a pledge, but political pledges are made to be broken. (Whether or not there are consequences for breaking a promise depends on how adept — or not — the pol in question is. There was George H.W. Bush and "read my lips," and then there were Mitt Romney’s protestations that he wasn’t interested in running for governor.) So, if the stars align just right for Hillary, would-be Democratic candidates for president in 2004 should start worrying. The most important question in that regard concerns the outcome of the New York governor’s race. Right now, everybody believes that Pataki will trounce McCall no matter what Clinton and her husband do on McCall’s behalf. An ABC News poll taken before Cuomo dropped out showed Pataki with a 13-point lead over McCall. But this big spread may be misleading. Cuomo had a 17-point lead over McCall less than a year ago. And there’s more. One private poll also taken before Cuomo dropped out, dug up by E.J. Kessler (a political columnist for the JournalNews, a Gannett newspaper covering suburban Westchester, Putnam, and Rockland Counties), showed McCall with a two-point lead over Pataki in a suburban swing district roughly comparable to the newspaper’s circulation area, which is key to electoral victory in New York. Part of McCall’s campaign strategy involves calling upon national Democratic Party big shots to come to New York and campaign for him. It is expected that Senator Clinton will campaign vigorously for him as well. So if by any chance McCall upsets Pataki, much of the credit will go to her.
Combine a McCall gubernatorial victory with a decision to bring the 2004 Democratic National Convention to New York City — an event for which Clinton would receive most of the credit, given her not-so-private battles with Kennedy over the issue — and New York’s junior senator suddenly becomes somebody to reckon with, a force within the party. In that case, while it’s still likely that Clinton wouldn’t seek the presidency, she could play an important part in determining which of the potential candidates — Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, House minority leader Richard Gephardt, or former vice-president Al Gore — gets the nomination. It’s true, of course, that primary voters matter more today than party bosses, but party bosses still count too (that’s why Senator Kennedy always rates a prominent speaking slot at the Democratic Convention). In the realm of hotly contested state primaries — increasingly low-turnout affairs in which the votes of activists matter — an endorsement from someone like Clinton means a lot.
It’s actually quite easy to imagine a scenario wherein Senator Clinton, still smarting over Gore’s "distancing" himself from President Clinton in 2000, blocks the former vice-president from raising money. (Part of the reason why former secretary of labor Robert Reich has had trouble raising money for the governor’s race is that supporters of former Democratic National Committee chair Steve Grossman have been reluctant to donate to Reich. This is both because of the perception that Grossman was loyal to Clinton during the impeachment struggle — and Reich was not — and because Grossman had worked hard to win over a small group of extremely influential supporters who thought Reich stole Grossman’s thunder). In this context, Clinton becomes as much a kingmaker on the national level as she was in New York last week. (Add to that how good her old health-care-reform efforts are going to look in a few years’ time, when the exponential growth of health-insurance costs will surely pull the business lobby into the health-care-reform debate, and she’s easily a contender for the 2008 nomination.)
Of course, Clinton could very well decide to run on her own in 2004. If President Bush’s poll numbers continue to fall, she might see an opportunity too good to pass up. Or she might simply be lobbied by Democratic activists. One thing’s for sure: as a politician, Clinton has been consistently underestimated, probably because she lacks her husband's innate political skill. But if the Cuomo episode suggests anything, it’s that political observers would be wise to do the opposite: expect anything of Hillary Clinton. She seems to have a knack for getting what she wants in this business.
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com