If he is as smart as he thinks he is, Rudolph Giuliani must be starting to realize just how formidable an opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton could be in next year’s Senate race. Her recent incursion has been judged a success even by bitter critics, and she escaped cleanly without a disastrous error.
Before even declaring herself a candidate, Mrs. Clinton rather abruptly placed herself in conflict with her husband’s Administration on a significant policy matter: the political status of Jerusalem and, more specifically, the proposed relocation of the U.S. Embassy there, which would symbolically endorse Israel’s claim upon that city as its capital.
Under the tutelage of New York’s Senators, both Democrats, Mrs. Clinton thus demonstrated that she can play the pander game that is so endemic around here just as ruthlessly as Mr. Giuliani always does-and she got away with it just as easily.
By pledging to an Orthodox Jewish organization that she would adopt the positions taken by Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles Schumer on Jerusalem, Mrs. Clinton broke with the State Department and the White House, which have correctly remained neutral regarding that sensitive problem.
As The Washington Post noted in an editorial criticizing this “faux pas” by the First Lady, a tilt toward the Israeli position on the fate of the city that is holy to three faiths “would undercut the American honest broker’s role in the peace talks about to resume in the Middle East.”
Unprincipled pandering always attends the initiation of a New York politician, and Mrs. Clinton doesn’t pretend to be an exception. If she believes in her heart that Jerusalem is the true and eternal capital of Israel, she hasn’t mentioned that convenient opinion until lately. Worse than the probable insincerity of her campaign utterance, however, was its timing-which coincided with Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s renewal of the peace process that his predecessor disrupted.
Sooner or later, she would surely have adopted the same position as Mr. Moynihan and Mr. Schumer-but much later would have been much better. Yet somehow the premature emergence of her position on Jerusalem occurred without any serious consequences to her nascent candidacy or to the peace process.
With the forthcoming visit of the new Israeli Prime Minister to Washington and New York, Mrs. Clinton’s credibility as a friend of Israel is likely to be enhanced. Having been helped into office by Democratic consultant James Carville, Mr. Barak presumably will be disinclined to embarrass his host and hostess with any embarrassing remarks about Jerusalem. Instead, the Clintons and the Baraks will take a helicopter out to historic Camp David for a pleasant working weekend, full of happy photo
Mr. Barak’s visit and the hopes invested in him may complicate the continuing Republican effort to alienate Jewish voters from Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Giuliani’s supporters already have tried to misuse her remarks supporting a Palestinian state for that same purpose, without much impact. That ploy failed because, as even the infamously hawkish Ariel Sharon acknowledged last year, a sovereign Palestine is no longer merely a dream or a nightmare; it is becoming a reality, supported in principle by a majority of Israeli citizens and American Jews as the price of peace.
Mr. Giuliani, a seasoned and obsequious panderer, probably will outbid Mrs. Clinton for the support of the ultra-Zionist right. But with Mr. Barak in power, that may mean opposing the Government of Israel. The Mayor’s previous forays in amateur diplomacy don’t bode too well for any such risky maneuver.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton has executed two additional blatant panders without suffering any significant backlash so far. During her tour of upstate farming communities, she endorsed the “dairy compact,” a cartel-like scheme that inevitably will raise milk prices for urban families.
More perilously, she recently welcomed the Rev. Al Sharpton to the White House, apparently at the behest of Representative Charles Rangel, another of her local Democratic mentors. That potentially provocative invitation briefly threatened to blow up in the First Lady’s face, and still again she avoided any real damage.
Finally, the prospect of a fresh assault upon her from independent counsel Kenneth Starr has shrunken into a forlorn fantasy. Only weeks ago, the likes of Christopher Hitchens muttered ominously about what awful untold secrets would emerge at the anticipated trial of Webster Hubbell, the felon who was once Mrs. Clinton’s law partner. The answer to such wishful speculations arrived with a hastily concluded plea agreement, which didn’t implicate Mrs. Clinton in any way.
Some day, the Mayor may find a fatal weakness in the First Lady’s candidacy, but no longer can he regard her as an easy mark. Like her errant spouse, she lacks neither skill nor luck, and to treat her as a naïve novice would be the Republican’s fatal mistake.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.