Democratic Left is Seething at Chuck, Hillary

There were several Democratic politicians at the anti-war march down Broadway over the weekend of March 23. But New York’s Senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, were not among them.

While their absence was no surpise-like many Democrats across the country, they have tried to balance support for a wartime President with criticism of his methods and priorities-it’s clear that many of their core liberal supporters are disappointed in them. They rallied around Mr. Schumer in 1998 and then Ms. Clinton in 2000 in hopes of restoring muscle to the Democratic Party. But in this supreme test, both have fallen into line with mainstream public opinion, leaving dissent to people like West Virginia’s Robert Byrd.

“I had hoped for better,” said Sarah Kovner, a veteran Democratic activist who served in the Clinton administration. “I think that Hillary has been a great Senator and Chuck has been a great Senator, but I would have hoped that they could have articulated something better on foreign policy.”

“I have no illusions about moderate Democrats like Hillary Clinton or Chuck Schumer, that I’m going to agree with them on every issue,” said liberal powerbroker Ken Sunshine. “People like me are still going to support them, but we’re very disappointed with both of them on this issue. We expected more.”

Many of the Senators’ dovish supporters are upset that both Mr. Schumer and Ms. Clinton voted in favor of September’s Congressional resolution authorizing the President to use force, if necessary, to disarm Iraq. Since then, the senators have been critical of some of Mr. Bush’s choices, in particular charging that Mr. Bush has shortchanged funding for homeland security in New York and elsewhere. But their statements on the war have been largely indistinguishable from the 77 other Senators who voted the same way on the war resolution.

Ms. Clinton’s office told the New York Post in early March that she “fully supports the steps the President has taken to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.” Mr. Schumer, pressed for a position by The New York Times shortly before the commencement of hostilities, said that he wished the President would try harder to build an international consensus to support military action. But he deferred to the administration on the final decision. “I am not President,” he said. “I think you cannot say yes or no.”

Some of the Senators’ supporters think their positions are at least partly motivated by the fear of a political backlash. “We don’t think they would have paid a political cost for voting the other way,” said Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, who lent valuable help to the Schumer and Clinton campaigns. “They obviously didn’t think that was the case, and they supported the President.”

Their delicate handling of the war issue shouldn’t suggest that either Senator has been entirely out of the spotlight. Long before the authorization vote, they had introduced any number of proposals-often in competition with each other-to procure increased federal funding for beefing up New York’s security. On March 25, as the Senate debated the President’s request to Congress for wartime spending, Mr. Schumer introduced a proposal to provide $10 billion in direct aid to emergency workers. Ms. Clinton had her own proposal, a piece of legislation that would set a base percentage of spending on the war to be set aside for homeland security.

Being in the minority party, their legislative options are limited. Neither of the bills would likely have any great effect on the Bush proposal, which would provide a tiny fraction of the direct aid for which New York officials at all levels have been clamoring. Ms. Clinton sounded more hopeful than realistic when she predicted that she’d be able to attract enough support for her bill to become something more than a gesture. “I just had another amendment that would’ve increased funding for law enforcement and homeland security and I got 49 votes, so I’m inching up here,” Ms. Clinton told reporters between votes on the Senate floor. “I’m making progress.”

But as is often the case with legislators in Washington, attracting attention to an issue-and to their own efforts to have a positive impact on it-can be an end unto itself. Hence Ms. Clinton and Mr. Schumer, like many Democratic Senators, continue to seize upon homeland security, a non-ideological, non-partisan issue that resonates particularly strongly with New Yorkers. It allows them to demonstrate toughness on defense without making heart-rending decisions about war and peace.

“Homeland security is the new version of Mom and apple pie,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “It’s something everyone is concerned about. It doesn’t have a left or a right tint. It’s smart politics for them to stress it as an issue.”

As for the unhappy doves, it’s unclear whether the displeasure will actually manifest itself in any meaningful way. There is, to begin with, a distinct timidity among many liberal political players in New York to speak out too forcefully against either Senator: Most of the anti-war supporters contacted by The Observer were hesitant to make their concerns public. “It’s all very disappointing to me,” said one well-known liberal activist and supporter of Ms. Clinton. “But at the same time, she’s carrying my agenda on domestic issues. So I don’t need to alienate her. It’s just one of those things.”

More importantly, though, it’s unlikely that dissatisfaction among core liberals will actually translate into opposition within the party at election time, a point that virtually every one of their backers made to The Observer . “I’m certainly not going to oppose them and end up with someone like George Pataki instead,” said Ms. Kovner, referring to the possibility of the Governor running for one of state’s Senate seats.

Nowhere to Go

“Where are their friends on the left going to go?” said Mr. Sheinkopf. “The only sanction would be a Democratic primary, and who would ever run against Schumer or Clinton? They’re still heroes to these people.”

This doesn’t mean, however, that they won’t continue to hear about it from their friends. At one recent fund-raiser in the Manhattan apartment of party stalwarts Patti and Jeffrey Kenner, Mr. Schumer arrived, made a brief speech, and opened the floor to questions and comments. He proceeded to get pummeled by the 40-odd people who were there, who put him on the defensive for nearly an hour about the war and his own tough line on Iraq.

Ms. Kenner said that Mr. Schumer and Ms. Clinton were both longtime friends, and noted that she had been among the earliest supporters to host parties for each of them when they first ran for the Senate. Asked about their positions on the war, she politely refused to comment.