There is nothing unusual about political dynasties. Every country has them. Japan has a growing list of second- and third-generation politicians. In the United States, the most prominent dynasty is the Kennedy clan, although the Bushes are providing tough competition; India has the Gandhi family. Usually, the torch passes from generation to generation; rarely have spouses competed for high political office at the same time. Never before has the wife of a country’s highest elected official run for public office, but that is going to change following last week’s announcement by Mrs. Hillary Clinton that she is going to run for the Senate next year in New York.
The race is sure to be a circus. The novelty and controversy of Mrs. Clinton’s bid will be matched by the intensity — and controversy — that the expected Republican nominee, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, will bring to the campaign.
There is little doubt that Mrs. Clinton can handle the post. She is reputed to have a finer mind than her husband, with a grasp of detail and a drive that would serve her well in the Senate. Several large question marks hang over her candidacy, however.
First, she has never lived in New York. While many of New York City’s cosmopolitan residents have welcomed the first lady, others, and especially those living in the country, have little time for a candidate who is unfamiliar with their concerns.
Second, Mrs. Clinton has never before held an elected position. The intellectual skills needed to succeed in Congress are one thing, but a candidate (and politician) must also have a thick skin. During her time in the White House, the first lady has closely guarded her privacy and has stayed out of the spotlight as much as possible. (She has even done so when acting in an official capacity, such as overseeing health-care reform during the president’s first term; this tendency is widely thought to have contributed to the failure of Mr. Clinton’s health-care program.) That will have to change.
Although Mrs. Clinton has said that the campaign will not be about personalities but about issues that concern the citizens of New York, she knows the fight will get dirty. There are no high-minded campaigns in the U.S. anymore, and New York politics can be some of the dirtiest in the country. She must be ready for anything the GOP will dish out. Taking the high road is a luxury — and an unrealistic alternative if she hopes to win the race.
A more troubling criticism is that she does not have her husband’s political instincts. Politicians must listen to constituents and rivals, taking in their views and compromising when necessary. Mr. Clinton seems to have a gift for this, and he revels in the opportunity to press the flesh. Mrs. Clinton is said to have something of a tin ear in such settings. To her credit, she is also reputed to be a quick learner, aware of her flaws.
A final concern is the unprecedented case of diverging views with her husband. New York’s interests are not those of the U.S. as a whole. Disagreements are inevitable; one or two have already occurred. Although Mrs. Clinton says she will become more of a candidate than a first lady, she remains the first lady. The president says he completely supports her bid, but the risk of policy splits between the two raises wholly new political questions.
There will be novelties aplenty in the 2000 elections; the New York race may be the most interesting campaign, but the sideshows should not be allowed to overshadow the significance of the elections nationwide. With the Republicans possessing a razor-thin majority in Congress, a shift in the control of the legislature is a real possibility. Although Texas Gov. George W. Bush would apparently win the presidency if the vote were taken tomorrow, the Democratic candidates are narrowing the gap.
Recent foreign-policy decisions, such as the Senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, could have been — and probably would have been — different if the numbers on Capitol Hill were different. No Democratic majority leader would have rammed that treaty through the Senate in the manner that Mr. Trent Lott did.
In other words, next year’s elections matter. It is fashionable to say that there is no difference between the two leading parties in the U.S.; it is also false. The Reform Party’s rising popularity may be the result of a growing perception that politics-as-usual in America leaves little room for the individual voter, but that sort of cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Mrs. Clinton’s campaign raises interest in the elections, then we are all for it — at least as long as everyone sticks around long enough to vote.
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