Calming Down Hillary: Her Team Softens Her for Fall Inoffensive

Oh, God, it’s the mutual moral outrage again.

Ever since the dramatic exit of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani robbed our Senate race of its customary clash-of-the-titans tag, the campaign of upstart Rick Lazio is doing its best to paint the contest to come as a fight between his sane, moderate self against the scarlet harlot of the Left. Conversely, the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton wishes to depict the fight as one between her sane, moderate self and Newt Gingrich’s demon kid brother.

Oh, come on. Do the Clinton people think that no one in New York owns a TV?

You didn’t even have to turn on the sound on the political talk shows on the morning of Sunday, May 21, to see the vibe that voters are going to read off Mr. Lazio: a clean-shaven prom date of a congressman who, if he showed up at the front door and asked your dad for the car keys, would get them. A relative conservative, with some legitimately whackable features in his voting record, Mr. Lazio might well be. Great demonization material he just isn’t.

As for Mrs. Clinton, she is, of course, nothing if not grade-A demonization material–witness the streams of money that pour in from all points right at the mere mention of her name. But come on: Do the Lazio people think that no one in New York has heard of the listening tour, the chatting swing, the great let’s-get-acquainted initiative and the countless other forays this woman has been taking across the state for the past infinity? Indeed, for purposes of getting Mr. Lazio elected, the salient fact is not how offensive Mrs. Clinton is to swing voters in New York. It is how offensive she is not .

Mrs. Clinton always has been, and always will be, a lightning rod. But by now, for all but the most rabid Hillary haters among us, she has got to be the least electrifying lightning rod in the history of conductivity. And that is a compliment to her campaign. Whatever else Team Hillary has or has not done, it’s been performing a radical, ongoing, and at least partially successful controversectomy on its candidate: a process clearly meant to remove any aspect of her persona that could be construed as distant, dangerous, frightening, threatening or overly opinionated. And, in the spirit of surgeons who say, “Let’s get it all while we’re here,” they have also removed much that the First Lady’s friends insist is interesting, bracing, admirable, memorable and vivid.

Whether this turns out to have been a stroke of genius or the kiss of death, it is, in retrospect, striking to note what quality the history-making campaign of this history-making figure has chosen to emphasize above–indeed, far above–all others. It is not strength, not honesty, not intelligence, not probity, not originality, not wit. Her campaign has set out, first and foremost and for a very long time, to emphasize the quality of nice.

To paraphrase the never-pallid Winston Churchill: Never have so many done so much to ensure the emanation of so few sparks from such a firecracker.

Now a firecracker, particularly one of Clintonian proportions, can be a very perilous thing to run as. So it may be entirely understandable that, if there is such a thing as a Hippocratic political campaign ethic, hers is it.

“First, do no harm,” you could practically hear her advisers saying, as they sent her to counties 1 through 62, expressing concern for children and families, health and jobs and assorted peace processes.

“First, do no harm,” you could practically see her thinking, as she gave herself little verbal shots of self-deprecation. (“I am a little older now, a little blonder, a lot humbler,” she said, comparing her current self with her college self.)

“First, do no harm,” you could practically sense printed on a Post-It note in front of the announcer as he narrated Mrs. Clinton’s first three commercials: spots that, while fine, seemed aimed far less at getting the viewer to vote for her than to refrain from voting against her.

All campaigns have unspoken but clear messages–”It’s the economy, stupid” being the most famous among them–that capture their candidate’s universe in a grain of sand. There are those supporters of Mrs. Clinton who bemoan their belief that their candidate does not yet have any such thing, but she does.

It’s not the most inspiring message in the history of political discourse, but it is clearly the implication of everything–wholesale, retail, live and on tape–that has been issuing forth from the Clinton camp from the word go.

Hillary: Go Right Up To Her–She Won’t Bite!

Hillary: Inoffensive ’00

Hillary: Not That Evil At All

She won’t punch you in the nose, raise your pulse rate or give you a headache. She might not wow you with her brilliance or her boldness, but hey, at least she’s not terrifying you with … her brilliance or her boldness.

“Give her a try,” the principle seems to be. “She won’t hurt you, and she might even be good for you.”

Mrs. Clinton has, in short, been positioning herself as a SnackWell’s cookie.

Now, SnackWell’s is a very successful line of food products, and Mrs. Clinton may turn out to be a very successful political product. But it seems to be worth noting that what tends to bother people about the cookies is exactly what tends to bother people about the candidate.

A SnackWell’s, after all, passes itself off as a delectable taste treat, when everyone knows that it is really a little round sponge with fake chocolate coating that you only have when anything you really want is off-limits. And, so far at least, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign is trying to pass her off as a fantastic candidate when all she really is, so far at least, is an O.K. candidate. She is being sold as an intellectual and an advocate, while pretty much shunning any word or deed that would really establish her as either. Her campaign has been depicting her as a candidate of passion, vision and substance, when so far, she has really shown herself to be merely a candidate of caution, diligence and polish. (Not a thing wrong with caution, diligence or polish–they just shouldn’t get one credit for courage, vision and substance.) And it is breathtaking what issues she has gotten away with not talking about, while insisting that she wants to talk about issues.

A key few:

Mrs. Clinton has yet to explain, with any clarity or depth, the health care debacle of 1994; whether she feels that it was, at its core, an essentially good policy that died an unfortunate political death, or a well-meant but organically flawed policy that, in retrospect, met the end it deserved; or how and where those two scenarios might interlock or overlap in her mind.

(And there’s a lot of other health care stuff, too. On April 4, for instance, The Observer e-mailed the Clinton campaign, asking, among other questions, how the First Lady would reconcile her commitment to balancing the federal budget and her loyalty to the Clinton administration with the funding for New York hospitals, which was massively cut because of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and which was only in small part restored by the subsequent legislation. No answer has been forthcoming. To be fair, no answer came from the dearly departed Giuliani campaign either–but he was supposedly running the campaign of insults; she was running the campaign about issues and ideas. Emphasize supposedly .)

She has yet to explain how she went from working with the Children’s Defense Fund to advocating for the Welfare Law of 1996, or even where she was at the time of the debate.

She has never cleared up the many legitimate little questions afloat in the mire of her positions with regard to the Middle East; how, for instance, she could write a letter in July 1999 expressing her belief in Jerusalem as the “eternal and indivisible capital” of Israel, only subsequently to recuse herself from addressing any aspect of the controversy on the grounds that to do so would potentially harm the peace process.

It’s not that Mrs. Clinton could not, in all probability, reconcile much of this. It’s that she should have to. And against a really good opponent, she would have to. For that matter, that opponent would be doing her a favor.

Because unless and until she says the kind of things that she has not yet said, she might well be unable to achieve that thwack of definition, that dropping of the shoe or lighting of the bulb inside the swing voter’s mind that turns indecision into decision; that makes such a voter say not “She’s nice” or “She’s not so terrible,” but “She’s great” or “She’s like me.”

Then again, if Mr. Lazio does not emerge as that opponent, she could win with the SnackWell’s strategy.

Indeed, if his attacks are limited to birthplace and accusations, it’s not hard to see that happening.

For all his I’m-a-New-Yorker, she’s-a-Bolshevik rhetoric, though, Mr. Lazio did give the slightest hint of possible problems to come.

“She is no more a New Democrat,” he said in the best line of his announcement speech, “than she is a New Yorker.”

It’s catchy, and it hits her for being a carpetbagger and a liberal. Taken individually, though, those are charges that she has been beating back for over a year. It is in the combination of the personal and the political, the interweaving of what people distrust about her motives with what they do not know about the evolution of her political beliefs–and cannot know, because she has never told them–that he may do some real damage.

SnackWell’s are popular cookies. If you haven’t got anything else in the house, or you have some medical condition that forbids you to eat anything else, they can be just fine–and compared to something really stale or rancid, they can be, in fact, quite good. But if there is something else to eat, you’ll go for the something else. Because SnackWell’s aren’t real, and even if you don’t hate them, they taste kind of funny.

She can soldier on as a SnackWell’s. But then, she had better pray that Mr. Lazio does not turn out to be anything from Pepperidge Farm. Calming Down Hillary: Her Team Softens Her for Fall Inoffensive