Betsy McCaughey Ross Is the Babe to Beat

Heresy becomes her. It’s been just six short months since Lieut. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross retired from driving the New York State Republican Party up the wall, but she has clearly settled right in to her new gig of doing it to the Democrats.

“I’m the most viable, electable Democrat in the race. I have the major advantages,” declared Ms. McCaughey Ross, who frequently breakfasts on red meat but was recently late-lunching on a plate of pale, lean-looking chicken in her Albany office. “I have very strong support upstate.… I have high name-recognition. I’m in first place in every single Democratic primary poll, every single one.” The Observer tried to say something for climbing the greasy pole of the party, just like every other good power-hungry Democrat, but Ms. McCaughey Ross strangled that weakling thought aborning. “And I like running for office!”

No kidding. In fact, now that she has embarked on her second wild ride out of two ventures into statewide races, it is eminently safe to say that the 49-year-old Ms. McCaughey Ross likes running for office in the most bizarre circumstances imaginable. On the afternoon of Monday, March 23, when Ms. McCaughey Ross sat down with The Observer , spring had just become official after a warm, dry winter, but a burst of snow swirled outside her office window, as if to ice the cake of her incongruity. Yes, yes, there is her infamous switch from Republican to Democrat, from Pataki booster to Pataki blaster, but such is mere aperitif. She is a newcomer to the Democratic Party, but, for the moment at least, also the front-runner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

A self-styled political naïf, she is also a near-perfect political professional: delivering her stump speech with a truly bravura sameness from Manhattan to Schenectady to Patchogue to Ithaca, Ms. McCaughey Ross is so “on message,” it would take a hell of a crowbar to pry her off. Whether she ever was an ideological conservative or just made quite a career of seeming that way, she is now selling herself as a liberal’s liberal-sorry, make that “the most socially progressive of the Democratic candidates.”

Ms. McCaughey Ross is not pro-choice, she is “unequivocally pro-choice.” She registers horror at recent calls by both Mr. Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to cut welfare benefits to the children of workfare no-shows (“I don’t think children should suffer for the failures or oversights of their parents”). Last St. Patrick’s Day, when Mr. Pataki would have been thrilled for her to stay home, Ms. McCaughey Ross marched in the parade, anyway. This year she abstained, as the “champion of gay and lesbian rights” that her literature now advertises her to be.

Not, of course, that everybody’s buying. “There’s a series of questions that I think she has to answer,” said Richard Kahan, the gubernatorial hopeful responsible for the recent spate of anti-Betsy ads. “Why did she support Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court? Why did she write Op-Eds supporting big tobacco? Why did she pull apart Clinton’s health care bill?”

Ms. McCaughey Ross answers such charges in one of two ways: They are not true (She contends, for instance, that she never supported Mr. Thomas, but simply wrote a piece in The New York Times defending his method of judicial review) or not true anymore. “If you don’t eat vegetables as a kid, you should never eat them?” she asked. “Where is the sense of human progress?”

Three cheers for growth as a person, but even those who aren’t pin-pricking the voodoo dolls of our newest Democrat can be granted a moment’s hesitation. The McCaughey Ross campaign, for instance, is cleverly-and plausibly-rationalizing her defection from the Republicans as a function of their treachery toward her, not hers toward them; a reflection of the G.O.P.’s eagerness to exploit her image as a brainy female without giving the female anything brainy to do. Still, it is hard to imagine that a Columbia Ph.D. known to scour every subject with research had no idea that being lieutenant governor meant life as a human cog in the Republican wheel. (On the other hand, if you accept that she truly didn’t know, you can’t help but wonder where she is on the tooth fairy.)

Similarly, it may be true that Ms. McCaughey Ross never intended to eviscerate Bill Clinton when she eviscerated his 1993 health care plan in The New Republic , but it certainly is true that she raised no audible objection when her essay came to be used both as a battering ram against the Clinton Administration and a vehicle for her swift Republican ascent. And for a woman of the people, she has acquired some fairly standard politician habits. She has, for instance, developed a knack of seeming straightforward without actually being so. Asked where she stands on lifetime teacher tenure, the prolific producer of reports on education correctly characterized the question as political and divisive. Asked to answer it, anyway, she then seemed to say she was for tenure (“Many politicians have talked about tenure as a lifetime job guarantee,” she said. “It’s really a guarantee of due process”) without actually saying she was for it (“I’m against attacking it”). Oh. Ms. McCaughey Ross seems also to share many politicians’ confidence that no one in their audiences will read any wonky-looking document they may care to brandish as proof that they really know their stuff. In Ms. McCaughey Ross’ case, this would be “New York: A Tale of Two Economies,” a report that she touts as containing “specific proposals for bringing back real jobs” and so on. In an interview, she admitted it was “more diagnosis” of problems than remedy (i.e., 35 pages of diagnosis, two pages of remedy), said she would soon be coming out with more detailed proposals and, indeed, hinted at several. But she is still waving around this one.

Clueless ‘Male Members’

Given, however, that Ms. McCaughey Ross is not trying to achieve intellectual consistency but to gain elective office, it is not enough for such quarrels to be real. They must also be resonant. In a way, the key question for Ms. McCaughey Ross is: Will voters ask themselves whether she is a real Democrat or whether she is a real person? City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a daily attendee at Catholic mass, is presumably praying that these questions will turn out to be one and the same.

“This is a Democratic primary, so she’s going to have to show Democrats that she can be a Democratic standard bearer,” Mr. Vallone told The Observer . “I think that’s going to be pretty hard for her to do.” He may have a point, especially if New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall continues down the road of brutal frankness on the subject of Ms. McCaughey Ross’ unfitness to head the statewide ticket. And the Vallone campaign will have many Democratic pleasing episodes with which to stem the Betsy tide, starting with the endorsement of Mr. Vallone by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. On the other hand, in a world where the average person does not know the state’s Democratic Party from a hole in the ground, Ms. McCaughey Ross clearly hopes to emerge as an energetic, well-spoken woman in a field of white men who can speak to voters on issues they care about in a way that strikes them as smart.

And she is smart. “I believe in the power of ideas,” Ms. McCaughey Ross likes to say, and it even seems true. Just before Mr. Pataki dumped her from the ticket, when reporters were dying for dirt about what was going on between her and the Governor, she really was trying to sell them on stories about the credit-rotting proclivities of chronically late state budgets, the cost-effective wonders of universal public prekindergarten and the urgent necessity of the Patient Fair Appeals Act, which would require insurance companies to pay for care indicated by one’s physician. And to some extent, her ideas will carry her over the hump of her past. Describing her interventions in your insurance nightmare might well go a long way toward taking the sting out of totaling the significantly flawed, widely forgotten Presidential health plan.

Furthermore, her ideas will also spin themselves out along feminist themes that should attract Democratic primary voters, particularly women. Asked about Mr. Vallone’s view that late-term abortion should be banned except when necessary to save the life of the mother, Ms. McCaughey Ross gave a preview of how she plans to wow the women. “The decision about an abortion should be made by a woman and her doctor, certainly not by those dark-suited senators strutting on the Senate floor,” she said, denouncing the State Legislature’s “very uninformed debate” on the subject, during which “several of the male members of the Republican majority were unable to even pronounce the various parts of a woman’s body, but nevertheless felt fully equipped to make a decision about when a woman should or should not have an abortion.”

Ms. McCaughey Ross bases her opposition to so-called Jenna’s Law, a high seller upstate that would end parole for violent offenders, on concerns about its ability to survive in the courts-but she throws in the fear that under this law, battered wives who strike back at their husbands could be locked up for good. And don’t forget Ms. McCaughey Ross’ best gender-based bonus: Though it is perfectly legitimate for her opponents to call her on her lack of history as a Democrat or experience at running any major operation, it is hard for them to do so without coming off as male chauvinists and/or hopeless party hacks.

Betsy’s Morning Burger

And entirely apart from Ms. McCaughey Ross’ political views, there is her political competition. Simply put, Ms. McCaughey Ross is, or looks, so strong at this point in the primary because her opponents are, or look, so weak. Some of this has to do with totally independent dynamics. For example, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s widely perceived predisposition to assure Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes a place on the ballot helps Ms. McCaughey Ross, because it will serve to siphon votes from Mr. Vallone. Moreover, “I think [Mr. Vallone] would be a good governor,” said Assemblyman Martin Luster, “but I don’t think as a matter of political reality that he will sell [upstate]. He is a totally unknown factor.” Mr. Luster, who called himself a “top supporter” of Ms. McCaughey Ross, may be prejudiced, but he is not wrong. “That’s the first time I ever heard that name,” said Jim Lebrou, a Schenectady County Democratic Committee member who bumped into The Observer at the Schenectady straw poll held on Saturday, March 21. “Peter Vallone-what does he do?”

In a way, that reaction is good news for Mr. Vallone, because it allows for the possibility that his poor poll numbers are purely a function of not having been properly introduced. But among upstate Democrats, there seems to be a growing resignation to the fact that when it comes to their region, to know Mr. Vallone is not to relate to him. So the battle plan for Operation McCaughey Ross emerges: co-opt the downstate liberals who don’t really like Mr. Vallone and the upstate moderates who never will really like him, and go home with the primary.

Even if all that happens, though, it is hard to believe that she has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the general election. She will, however, almost certainly come out of the primary bleeding from attacks on her credibility. If, at that point, Mr. Pataki looks anywhere near as strong as he looks now, it is hard to imagine that those parts of the Democratic coalition that are now lukewarm, or worse, toward the convert will suddenly warm up to her. Between Republican strength and Democratic weakness, the conventional wisdom goes, Mr. Pataki will finally, finally, finish That Woman off.

But what’s the fun of having the mother of all mavericks in our midst if we’re going to be slaves to conventional wisdom? The general air of excitement about the McCaughey Ross campaign may be wary and weird, but, hey, it’s still excitement. “Peter Vallone is going to mass every morning, and Betsy’s eating fucking hamburger for breakfast,” marveled a Democratic operative who doesn’t work for Ms. McCaughey Ross, but worships her carnivorous approach to devouring the odds against her. “Betsy wins.”

Right now, she certainly thinks she does. In fact, perhaps the best of the many brilliant ironies about her campaign is this: While onlookers wait for her to crack up like the crazy she is widely, wishfully, supposed to be, Ms. McCaughey Ross has, publicly at least, been approaching this race with the approximate firmness of God. The woman is aglow with focus. She is caffeinated with confidence. She is on the phone from the road.

“Are you aware of the endorsements I’ve picked up this week?” asked the Lieutenant Governor. “The National Women’s Political Caucus endorsed me today. Jack Dillenberg from Chatauqua County endorsed me today. Bill Thompson from Tioga County endorsed me yesterday. Things are moving right along!”