You Talkin’ To Me? Now’s Not the Time for Senator Hillary

At a certain level, the proposed Senate candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton makes a great deal of sense: It will require a transparent evasion of an inconvenient law, and it will bring to New York, capital of shallow fame, a candidacy whose only rationale is a well-known last name.

On both points, the seat in question offers a precedent. It has been pointed out that two of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s three most recent predecessors were out-of-towners: Robert F. Kennedy of the Massachusetts Kennedys and James L. Buckley of the Connecticut Buckleys. What makes it all come together is that they, like Mrs. Clinton, not only carried their wares in a carpet bag, but offered voters a name made famous by a close relation. Not only is this seat friendly to out-of-towners (even Mr. Moynihan was born in–egad!–bow-tie-deprived Oklahoma), but it is the one to which various “of” candidates may aspire: brother of, another brother of, wife of. Makes you wonder why Andrew Cuomo, son of, decided against making a bid for it.

Mrs. Clinton’s supporters dispense with the little Constitutional problem of residency by pointing to such precedents and suggesting that New Yorkers are so generous of spirit that they will bestow their hallowed Senate seat on nonresidents.

It is an offensive and astonishingly tone-deaf notion: There is a great gash in the once sturdy hull of New York politics, and nobody has been able to stop the leakage of precious clout. At such a moment, it is proposed that the state send to Washington a nonresident who seems very smart and who speaks very highly of all good and earnest things, but who could hardly be counted on to make sure those elusive Federal education dollars get spent in the right places.

In Mexico on Feb. 15, President Bill Clinton said his wife would “be terrific” in the Senate. But that’s not the issue. How on earth could she be “terrific” for New York? What does she know about Utica and White Plains and the F train?

A few of Mrs. Clinton’s Manhattan friends actually have suggested that the First Lady deserves election. Some note that because New York, to its shame, hasn’t yet elected a woman to statewide office on her own, the time has come to import a candidate of the female persuasion. What might Representative Nita Lowey, a Westchester resident, or Representative Carolyn Maloney, who represents the Upper East Side, make of that?

There was a time when New York could afford the generosity that Mrs. Clinton’s friends wish to indulge in again. New York in 1964, when Robert Kennedy dropped in for a visit and wound up getting elected to the Senate, still was a political powerhouse despite its relatively few square miles. It had the most votes in the Electoral College. It had been producing Presidential candidates as regularly as the Yankees won pennants (Al Smith, Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey). Its senators–Robert Wagner, Herbert Lehman and Jacob Javits–were leaders of national stature at the height of the American Century. And its political pros–Edward Flynn, James Farley–pulled White House strings behind the scenes.

Even in 1970, when James Buckley was elected Senator from the New York Central Railroad, New York had illusions of majesty. It could, and did, send people to Washington not to fight for transportation projects or, heaven forbid, an equitable share of Federal funds, but to debate Great Issues.

As Mrs. Clinton will surely attest, there has been a change in our idea of great national issues. Her husband, as has been pointed out, functions more like a big-state governor than a leader of the Free World. Washington is no longer a policy innovator; it is the cash machine that funds initiatives developed in state capitals. The fight for that cash requires not just political muscle, which Mrs. Clinton understands at a general level, but also a deep and abiding understanding of this economically diverse state.

New Yorkers no longer can afford the luxury of a generic senator who says all the right things about child care and Social Security and human rights. (Mr. Moynihan may have been making this point when, on national television, he praised the First Lady’s “Illinois-Arkansas enthusiasm.”) New Yorkers have become accustomed to Senators who know where the potholes are and how to fill them, who have the vision to write nuts-and-bolts legislation that benefits the folks at home.

With his mad-dog attention to small issues, Alfonse D’Amato changed New York’s idea of a senator’s duties. And Daniel Patrick Moynihan, while doing the Great Issues thing, has managed to funnel more big-ticket projects to New York than the state, regrettably, knows how to process. The two men are unalike in many ways, but they understood that they were representing a state that could no longer simply command the attention of the Federal Government. They had to be unabashedly parochial, and even then, there were no guarantees. Mr. Moynihan annually distributes a report showing that New York does not get back its fair share of Federal spending. (The most recent report showed that the state sent $5,124 per person to Washington, and received $4,339 per person in return.) Would the gentlewoman from Illinois-Arkansas concern herself with such business?

The next census will certify New York’s free fall from its midcentury hegemony. Most analysts figure the state will lose two or three seats from a wonderfully diverse delegation whose dominant color is green. Florida and Texas will push the state back in the Electoral College vote, creating, with California, a Sunbelt colossus that will have little sympathy for New York’s special little problems.

It will take a village-dweller, a person passionately and unabashedly attached to a special place called home, to raise New York’s profile in the nation’s capital. Sure, a smart out-of-towner with keys to an East Side apartment can give wonderful speeches about the many complex and urgent problems confronting society as it enters the new millennium. But an apartment key does not a New Yorker make.

As its clout continues to diminish, New York will need a New Yorker in the Senate, unless, of course, all those true believers out there decide they’d rather be earnest than parochial.