It’s conventional-wisdom week in the U.S. Senate sweepstakes, and that-hang on to your hats!-means a good week for Hillary Rodham Clinton. No kidding.
The conventional wisdom has it that no Republican can win statewide office without the Conservative Party’s endorsement. The conventional wisdom also has it that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cannot secure the Conservative line unless he woos its state chairman, Michael Long, by embracing, or at least countenancing, the possibility of supporting a ban on late-term, or partial-birth, abortion.
By the conventional wisdom, then, Mrs. Clinton should go ahead and order her Senate stationery. And so she may end up doing. Though the First Lady’s campaign has, of course, been anything but smooth, it has yet to confront anything like the 300,000-vote bump that Mr. Long seems to be throwing in the path of Mr. Giuliani. But along the way, bet on this much: Either Mr. Long will bow to pressure being exerted on him by Republicans from George W. Bush on down and endorse the Mayor without forcing him to pay for it with a self-lacerating self-contradiction on abortion. Or Mr. Giuliani will stand his ground, lose the line and pay the consequences on principle … loudly, clearly, insistently, relentlessly expressed principle.
“The Mayor’s position on a woman’s right to choose has not changed,” said Giuliani campaign aide Bruce Teitelbaum from Mr. Bush’s Texas, where the pro-choice Mayor was sucking up to the pro-life Presidential candidate without anyone’s respective principles getting in the way. And his position won’t change, because it can’t.
The calculation has been made. In order to beat Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Giuliani first will have to beat the conventional wisdom.
Think about it. A refusal to modify his position on abortion threatens the Mayor’s ability to run as the Conservative nominee. Even more important, though, an agreement to modify it would threaten his ability to run as a political man of steel. It would blur the contrast that he most needs to draw: the contrast between the vacillating, prevaricating, carpetbagging First Lady and the unwavering, straight-shooting maverick of a Mayor.
In one sentence, he would undo all the marvelous mischief done to Mrs. Clinton by the tale of the F.A.L.N. terrorists; her questionable claims of Yankee fandom; her taking and then leaving a fishy mortgage; her Middle Eastern misadventures, and so on. He would take the spotlight off all the political strengths inherent in being a Republican twice elected in an overwhelmingly Democratic city-the impression that he’s a pragmatist, not a partisan-and shine it brightly on all the weaknesses: the impression that he panders worse (or is it better?) than she does. He would immeasurably assist Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in its treasured task of tying him to his national party at the point that many New Yorkers view as its nuttiest. And all the while, he would do nothing to help himself with true believers who will never believe in him.
“Rudy Giuliani’s position on abortion is exactly the same as Hillary Clinton’s,” said Kenneth Diem, chairman of the New York State Right-to-Life Party. “I don’t think there’s any question about it.”
Nor is there any question that if Mr. Long were to send the Mayor his endorsement along with two dozen roses and a box of Swiss chocolates, Mr. Long’s party could suffer the loss of a consequential sum of deeply conservative voters, and Mr. Diem’s party would reap the gains. The last time there was a closely contested Senate race (last year), a Right-to-Life voter could support his or her candidate-one Alfonse D’Amato-by voting Republican, Conservative, or Right-to-Life. Next year such people might stick with the Right-to-Life candidate. The same can be said for those whose conservatism on nonreproductive issues, such as gay rights or gun control, render Mr. Giuliani anathema to them.
There is a certain irony in the possibility of Mr. Giuliani hanging his consistency bona fides on the hook of reproductive rights. That is emphatically not because Mr. Giuliani is a Roman Catholic who has followed many a politician of both parties down the ambition-paved route from the pro-life to the pro-choice position. (During a recent weekend round of political talk shows, as Clinton aides Mandy Grunwald and Harold Ickes sought to render him abortionally inadequate on grounds of his having switched sides years ago, the semi-wakeful viewer could not help but think, “You mean like Al Gore?”) His problems are strictly present tense: Before moderate, pro-choice voters, Mr. Giuliani will attempt to neutralize the issue-and narrow any gender gap-by pointing to his record. And, it seems, deservedly so.
“He did early, early stuff on [protecting] clinic access,” said Joann Smith, executive director of Family Planning Advocates, an umbrella reproductive-rights organization that does not endorse candidates. “We used the New York City experience as a model for everything we did statewide.” (Ms. Smith had equal praise for the Clinton Administration.)
But even as the Mayor points to his pro-choice record, he will be courting Mr. Long and his staunchly pro-life party. He will be supporting a pro-life Presidential candidate, who will, if elected, be appointing several Supreme Court justices. And if elected, he will become a junior member of a legislative body wherein he will answer to, or feel the wrath of, a party leadership that is pro-life, and that the choice movement, fairly or unfairly, vociferously depicts as the constant corroder of a woman’s right to choose. That’s politics, of course; but the ease with which the Mayor espouses a principle while espousing that principle’s sworn enemies can only be described as Clintonian.
Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, will enjoy a refreshingly unambiguous ride on this one. She can trumpet her commitment to choice, and blast limitations upon it, with a certitude that can well be described as Giulianiesque. And this, too, has its ironies. In her longtime straddling of the fence between feminist firebrand and Methodist mom, Mrs. Clinton has sometimes made statements for which a non-icon would pay dearly.
Consider the matter of parental notification for minors seeking abortion, a measure that some pro-choice voters find commonsensical, but that the pro-choice movement has often depicted as heretical. “I have supported parental notice so long as there is some kind of bypass provision,” she told The New Republic in 1992, “because insofar as possible, we respect and honor the family.” Earlier this year, in the course of her listening tour, she simply ignored the question on the matter, and her campaign declined to clarify it. This week, her campaign indicated that the First Lady opposes parental notification.
And on Nov. 29, Mrs. Clinton headlined a fund-raiser for Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of Queens, a pro-life, first-term incumbent likely to face a primary against at least two pro-choice challengers, Assembly member Catherine Nolan and City Council member Walter McCaffrey. Needless to say, neither example does much to alter Mrs. Clinton’s overall record on reproductive rights. But if Mr. Giuliani stands firm on the late-term abortion question, the First Lady’s commission of such fine-print transgressions could, in combination with the Mayor’s digging in his heels, serve to keep pro-choice activists where he wants them-on the sidelines.
If, on the other hand, he buckles, such fine-print transgressions on the part of the First Lady would be lost in the stampede of pro-choice activists to her side.
“I do not envy Mike Long,” said Mr. Diem, the Right-to-Life Party state chairman. “Mike Long is a principled person. He’s being backed into a terrible corner.”
A corner in which Mr. Giuliani must be careful not to join him.