Hillary’s Got a Fella-Pat Moynihan

Maybe it’s just because he had major back surgery last spring, but Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been getting one hell of a massage from Hillary Rodham Clinton. Soon after the First Lady phoned Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore to wish him a good recovery from his March 31 operation, Mr. Moynihan sent her a letter on the subject of Kosovo that, the story goes, arrived when she was traveling. Sifting through mail upon her return, Mrs. Clinton was reportedly so vexed to learn that the letter had gone unacknowledged that, though it was somewhere around 10 o’clock at night, she called the Senator at his Washington apartment. And, coincidentally, on April 7, there was the President giving a foreign policy speech into which he slipped respectful reference to “ethnic and religious conflicts we once thought of as primitive, but which Senator Moynihan, for example, has referred to now as postmodern …”

On its own, this little exchange seems a perfectly logical, if high-level, exercise in posterior-puckering. Mrs. Clinton seeks not only the seat Mr. Moynihan holds, but also the stature he emanates-and at least some of the popularity with which he emanates it. And the Senator, despite his reputation as an ivory tower antipol, is known to have been born a Democrat and baptized a Catholic, and therefore can be counted upon for chivalry toward the woman who would succeed him.

But in light of the First Lady’s policy-riddled Washington past and her politically ambitious New York present, her courting of our senior Senator ought to be seen as a good deal more than that. Both artful and energetic, it is a window into her general wooing of New York political players, to whom she offers her newcomer’s humility on the silver tray of her national importance. (Too bad the Rev. Al Sharpton couldn’t make it to that White House dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair.) Fraught with ironies of style and of substance, it suggests several of the most legitimate questions that her candidacy should raise, as well as some of the ways that her campaign will attempt to answer, if not pre-empt, them. And insofar as the Senator’s cooperation signals his desire that Mrs. Clinton guard his legacy, it hints at the lines of mutual self-interest being drawn between the not-yet candidate and her would-be Congressional colleagues; traces of which can, of course, be detected in the current contretemps over the President’s Medicare proposal.

If one had recently descended from Mars, one could be forgiven for thinking that Mrs. Clinton had spent a lifetime longing to emulate Mr. Moynihan. Over the past few months, she has met several times with him and, much more relevant to the how-tos of running for the Senate in New York, with his wife, Elizabeth, who has long served as the practical-politics side of the Senator’s brain. The First Lady has sat for tutorials from several people suggested by the Senator, one of whom predicted that “she’s going to have a postgraduate degree” in Empire State advocacy. Even bedtime would seem to be no barrier to her tuition in all matters Moynihan. “In a meeting the other day,” said an associate of the Senator, “Hillary Clinton said, ‘I sleep with the Moynihan fisc report’-which describes how other states steal New York’s lunch-‘under my pillow.'” And, of course, Mrs. Clinton chose to kick off the first leg of her “listening tour” of New York State at Derrymore, the Moynihans’ farm in Delaware County. The farm, incidentally, has a one-room, no-telephone schoolhouse in which the Senator has spent many mornings tapping out his thoughts on an electric typewriter, but does not have a hint of anything that would scream “crazy urban liberal” to anyone scanning the scene on television. Mandy Grunwald, the Clinton aide who served as a media consultant on three of Mr. Moynihan’s campaigns is thought to have brokered the highly unusual use of the farm as photo op.

‘Academic Floozy’

If, on the other hand, one has spent any of the past seven years reading American newspapers, one can remember an instance or two when the Clinton-Moynihan relationship seemed scarcely less hostile than that of Montague-Capulet. Indeed, the first such instance might well be the one involving the single policy issue of greatest importance to the First Lady (health care reform) and the second, the one involving the single policy issue of greatest importance to the Senator (welfare reform). As many remember, Mr. Moynihan, who assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee in 1993, argued strongly that the health care initiative ought to come after the welfare one; and that the health care measure, representing a rather seismic shift in national policy, could not be secured without tremendous bipartisan support. But, perhaps sniffing the powerful glue of victory and of Democratic dominance in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Administration made few bones about its intentions to roll over the Republicans in Congress-and indeed, quite literally by some accounts , over the Democratic Senator from New York.

“When Harold Ickes went to Washington, his role was to manage the health care campaign,” said Mr. Moynihan’s former chief of staff Bill Cunningham. “There is no record of him seeking out the Senator who was (a) from New York and (b) chairman of the Finance Committee.” (Mr. Ickes did not return a call for comment.) Instead, as many also remember, it was the Administration that got flattened. “They viewed Pat Moynihan as some kind of academic floozy,” said a friend of the Senator. “Now they’ve come on their knees.”

This scenario, it must be said, is far from strictly true. “On a number of other fronts-the budget, foreign policy-the Senator has been a very strong supporter of and adviser to the President,” Moynihan chief of staff Tony Bullock pointed out. “When things were flaring up on the Indian subcontinent, Moynihan was the first guy they called.” Moreover, throughout the Clinton era, there have been significant relationships of mutual respect, such as that with former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. Nonetheless, when it comes to the current specter of Mrs. Clinton seeking Mr. Moynihan’s mantle, her people do tend toward tones of deference; his, toward the voice of vindication.

Bill Clinton’s ‘Disorder’

And even now that love has bloomed, the Senator and his aspiring successor do seem a rather odd couple. Clearly, they are well matched in their shared qualities of intelligence, diligence and an ideological provenance somewhere in the social-justice quadrant of the Democratic Party. But unless the First Lady’s political emancipation from her husband includes a dramatic severance of styles, they would seem to be virtual opposites in their approach to political life. Mr. Moynihan, for instance, prides himself on speaking, as opposed to spinning. (One of the thoughts he spoke in January 1998 was that if the Monica Lewinsky story were true, the President should resign because it suggested a “disorder.”) Mrs. Clinton is in every sense married to an Administration whose spinning puts that of Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski to shame. Mr. Moynihan served in the Nixon White House and has often taken pleasure in praising such Republicans as the Bobs, Dole and Packwood-to say nothing of Senator Bob Kerrey, whom he endorsed in the 1992 Democratic Presidential primary over Mr. Clinton. She may well have saved her husband’s Presidency when she drove the phrase “right wing conspiracy” stake-like through the heart of the Republican Congress. Mr. Moynihan, whatever one thinks of his views, has views, and New Yorkers know what they are. After the demise of her 1994 health care bill, Mrs. Clinton largely vanished from the path of policy.

Needless to say, the 2000 Senate race could turn out to be one of those political contests in which the most stark of policy distinctions between the candidates matters less than such matters as their respective personalities, baseball allegiances and stances for or against launch parties for Talk magazine. Then again, its circumstances may afford policy a prominence it rarely enjoys-and only in small part because attacks upon the First Lady’s legal, marital, and financial propensities must be handled with the care accorded dynamite. What’s more to the point is that Mrs. Clinton, as you may have read, is not a biological daughter of New York, and her campaign will seek to mitigate that fact most forcefully with the argument that she is something better: its substantive soul mate. “She is an issue-oriented person,” said former Presidential adviser Paul Begala, who is not involved in the First Lady’s campaign but whose sentiments are universal among her supporters. “The issues of her life-education, health care, children, families-are New York’s issues.” They are also precisely the kinds of issues on which Mr. Moynihan has most forcefully opposed the Clinton Administration-and done so significantly, although never solely, on the grounds that the Administration’s policies would injure his home state. “Mrs. Clinton [recently] said, ‘What’s good for New York is good for the country,'” observed Lawrence O’Donnell, who served as chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee when Mr. Moynihan chaired it and Mrs. Clinton scared it, with a 1,342-page bill that aimed to take over one-seventh of the nationaleconomy without appeasing one scintilla of Republican apprehension. “I spent two years trying to convince her of that.”

Such are the words of which anti-Hillary bombs are built-and what better way to defuse them than to christen her campaign with Mr. O’Donnell’s old boss at her side?

In1998,Mr. Moynihan opposed the line item veto in the first instance because he felt it was unconstitutional, but ended up fighting it, as well, because the President’s first attempt to exercise the power was to excise an amendment to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which would have spared New York from having to send some $2.6 billion in state hospital taxes to Washington. (As Republican commercials may be reminding us, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Mr. Moynihan and Dennis Rivera, leader of the Local 1199 hospital workers’ union, held a joint press conference on that one.)

In 1996, Mr. Moynihan opposed the Republican welfare bill signed by the President not only because he regarded the measure as a catastrophic confusion of the words “repeal” and “reform,” but also because of its disproportionate damage to New York, with its heavy poor and immigrant populations. (On the second part at least, Mr. Giuliani was with the Senator on that one, too.) In 1994, the Senator failed to hail the health care bill not only on a variety of general principles, but also because it threatened funding streams of dire consequence to New York on at least two significant counts: its teaching hospitals and its care of the poor. (Yes, those would be the same teaching hospitals on whose behalf the First Lady “expressed concern” in the recent White House meeting about the President’s Medicare proposal.) “The Clinton health care bill was the single most negative piece of legislation to New York City interests to have come to the Congress by a President, ever,” said Mr. O’Donnell.

“That’s not a path she intends to go down again,” said Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman Howard Wolfson, putting the health care plan in the past, where the campaign definitely wants it-except insofar as it can be summoned as proof of her sterling intentions and dazzling expertise. (One envisions a “Ends Good, Means Bad” sign, reminiscent of James Carville’s “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” hanging in Hillary’s war room.) It may even be true that the reconstituted Mrs. Clinton ends up deserving to win whatever health care debate this race yields. But can’t we at least have a laugh at the punditry that has been poured into the question of whether or not the First Lady can possibly have been a Yankee fan during her Illinois girlhood, when she definitely was the relatively recent architect of legislation that was greeted with abject horror by the very hospital system whose cause she is now hitting meetings to champion?

Hillary on Welfare Bill?

Now, the point here is not that Mrs. Clinton’s fitness to serve is somehow proportional to the degree of her communion with Mr. Moynihan. Nor is it that such issues as health care and welfare reform will be anything like trouble-free zones for her eventual Republican opponent, perhaps least of all if that opponent turns out to be Mr. Giuliani. Moreover, given the scalding that Mrs. Clinton took at the times when she openly exercised influence in her husband’s Administration, it hardly seems fair to take her to task for the times when she refrained from doing so. But it seems equally ill-advised to pre-endow her with a set of courageous convictions that she has yet to articulate. It is easy, for example, to find people who will applaud Mrs. Clinton for some 30 years of tireless advocacy on behalf of the nation’s most vulnerable children. But it is very hard to find anyone who can vividly remember how she felt about the most significant legislation to affect those children ever to cross her husband’s desk. “I really have never known where she stood on it,” said Peter Edelman, who resigned his post as a domestic policy adviser over the President’s signing of the 1996 welfare bill. “I actually bought Stephanopoulos’ book to find out. I guess she says now that she supported it.” (Indeed, that is exactly what she says, through her representatives.)

But look who is supporting her, in spite of it all. If the Senator has chosen to engage the First Lady now that his party has anointed her, the health and hospital workers’ union has been right in there, dabbing the oil on the First Forehead. Of course, as the current Medicare dustup indicates, what that gains for her in long-term support, it may lose her in short-term serenity. “Certainly, [regarding] the Balanced Budget Act’s effect on the health care system, we strongly disagree with the Administration,” said Local 1199 spokesman Ken Sunshine. This tangle has led to the recent spate of stories about the delicate balance of loyalties that a candidate Clinton must achieve. But perhaps those stories have got the dynamic exactly backward. Rather than the difficulty of remaining First Lady while running for the Senate, perhaps the proper point of emphasis is the luxury of it; the very blue bargaining chips it would seem to afford.

Certainly in the eyes of her newest New York friends, Mrs. Clinton needn’t buy her house in Westchester before she can start bringing home the bacon. “At some point, the free ride for Hillary is going to be over and we’re going to have to see her do stuff to defend us,” said Representative Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn. “Every elected official in New York is making the same analysis in how responsive the White House is going to be over the next 18 months.” But Mr. Moynihan is making an analysis as to how responsive the First Lady is likely to be over a much longer haul.

So, bygones being bygones, the First Lady will start the first real day of her first run for office on the farm of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and she will finish it falling asleep with a report of his under her pillow.

Although an old friend of Mr. Moynihan, upon hearing that, did make a good point: “I just hope she read the damn thing.”