First Lady’s Decision Shouldn’t Be Rushed

The last time Hillary Rodham Clinton might have run for office was back in 1990, when her husband briefly considered forgoing another term as Governor of Arkansas to devote himself full time to his Presidential ambitions. She abandoned the notion of replacing him after a discreet and discouraging survey of statewide opinion.

A brighter prospect is promised by polls taken lately in New York–such as one, just released by the widely respected Marist Institute for Public Opinion, that shows Mrs. Clinton defeating Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the likely Republican nominee, by a wide margin in next year’s Senate race. According to Marist director Lee Miringoff, the only category in which the Mayor beats her is among that oppressed minority known as Republican males.

Powerful Democrats assure Mrs. Clinton that she would face no primary opposition. They know that the talented, energetic First Lady is the most popular Presidential wife in this state since the passing of her idol, Eleanor Roosevelt. It is becoming easier to imagine, as Elizabeth Holtzman suggested the other day, a rousing announcement of the Hillary Clinton candidacy at Mrs. Roosevelt’s historic home in upstate Hyde Park.

No doubt the welcome extended to Mrs. Clinton by Democratic leaders, despite her status as a carpetbagger, is utterly sincere and perhaps slightly desperate. Like the late Robert F. Kennedy, whose sudden adoption of New York in 1964 offers a nostalgic precedent, the First Lady would confer star power upon a party in an advanced state of decay. With the exception of Senator Charles Schumer’s upset victory over Alfonse D’Amato last year, New York Democrats have had little to boast about over the past decade–other than the massive margins racked up by Bill Clinton in both his Presidential campaigns.

Still, before everyone gets carried away with enthusiasm for what would surely be an entertaining contest, it would be wise to inspect the underside of the accelerating Hillary-for-Senate bandwagon.

First she must ask herself whether it would be worse to run for the Senate and lose, or to run for the Senate and win. Does she really wish to forfeit the money and independence that could so easily be hers when she leaves the White House? She could command lucrative book contracts, copious foundation funds and almost anything else she desires without setting foot in the Capitol–and without having to smile at Trent Lott, Phil Gramm and the entire Senatorial coterie that tried to destroy her husband.

Moreover, regardless of the poll numbers that may entice her today, it is probably too soon after the impeachment fiasco for Mrs. Clinton to make such a difficult decision. The approval ratings she enjoys now actually suggest caution, because those same numbers may indicate that she is peaking too early. Her enemies are eager to gnaw away at her negatives, and, for them, more time means more opportunities to uncover a vulnerability.

That search has begun already with squawking about Whitewater, Travelgate and so on. Mr. D’Amato, the last prominent New Yorker to make a fuss about those non-scandals, is now a private citizen partly thanks to his shrill 1996 hearings on the subject. Yet that doesn’t mean Mrs. Clinton can entirely avoid the same old questions–or that some embarrassing exchange from her grand jury testimony won’t be leaked at an inopportune moment.

She would be the first sitting First Lady to run for office, and may well find it awkward to undertake a Senate campaign while her husband attempts to salvage his second term. With debates over the budget and Social Security just beginning, each day on the campaign trail would bring hard questions for Mrs. Clinton: Does she support her husband’s proposal for investing Social Security funds in the stock market? Does she agree with him about targeted tax breaks rather than a broader Republican tax cut? If so, will she modify her position whenever the White House line shifts during negotiations with Congress?

All too quickly, candidate Clinton could find herself at cross-purposes with President Clinton on issues from the Middle East to health policy. She might either appear to be his captive or to be undermining his initiatives–particularly when Administration policy inevitably conflicts with some more parochial New York concern. The sooner she enters the Senate race, the more any contradictions between her aims and his may impede them both.

With apologies to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Representative Charles Rangel and the host of New York politicians who are demanding an instant answer, Mrs. Clinton cannot resolve these personal and political questions on anyone else’s timetable. Friends who really want her to run–for all the obvious good reasons–should apply the brakes to the bandwagon and permit her to mull their proposition over the next few months rather than the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, those who point impatiently to the example of Robert Kennedy should recall that he didn’t decide to run for the Senate until August 1964, a mere three months before Election Day. Mrs. Clinton can’t wait that long, but she still has a little time–and she certainly needs it.

First Lady’s Decision Shouldn’t Be Rushed