Here’s A Quandary: Who Wants Buchanan, Mayor or First Lady?

To court or not to court? When it comes to Hillary Rodham Clinton and the endlessly permutating Independence Party, that is the question.

Actually, when it comes to Hillary Rodham Clinton and pretty much anything having to do with her Senate bid, it’s, “Can you ride on the brakes through one yellow light after another and still finish first?” That is always the question, but at the moment, the two are intersecting, to batter a pun, at the point of the Independence Party command-performance candidate forum, to be held in Buffalo on April 29.

Indeed, that “to court or not to court” was still the question less than one week before the forum was the most striking thing about it. Lord knows the dilemma itself, although decidedly thorny, is anything but new. Faced with a tight race in which so many factors will defy prediction, should the First Lady do everything in her power to nail down the nomination of a party that occupies Row C on the ballot, right below the Democrats and the Republicans, has consistently pulled over 100,000 votes statewide, and therefore might very well provide the margin of victory?

Or should she more heavily weigh the fact that, given its status as the New York home of the national Reform Party, taking the Independence line could render her the running mate of one Pat Buchanan–to say nothing of associating her with the anti-Semitically inflected Lenora Fulani–and give the idea a high-minded pass?

In some ways, this is a problem that Mr. Giuliani would love to have. In theory, he has reason to resist the possibility of being painted, by virtue of the Buchanan association, into the right-wing corner where Team Hillary would love to have him. But the Mayor knows all too well that, as a Republican running at a registration deficit of nearly two million votes relative to the Democrats–and running without benefit of the Conservative line–he is in no position to be fussy. That is why Giuliani campaign manager Bruce Teitelbaum has been working the Independence Party like mad for months; why the Mayor is absolutely, positively committed to appearing at the April 29 forum; and why Mr. Giuliani, with only Mr. Teitelbaum and chief of staff Tony Carbonetti in the room, met with Independence state chairman Frank MacKay for more than an hour at Gracie Mansion on the evening of Monday, April 24.

“I think that we agree on initiative and referendum, and opening up debates to third-party candidates,” said Mr. MacKay of the Mayor and some reforms of his party. “He said that he is in favor of same-day voter registration.”

We’ll bet he did.

Meanwhile, the vibe was that Mrs. Clinton would be a no-show, but how she got to be one, and why she could not yet bring herself to say that she was going to be one, indicates the eau of inertia that has perfumed every pulse point of this campaign. It’s not a huge, clanging disaster that is bespoken here, but rather, the difference between the timid, lumbering effort that this campaign has been, and the sharp, smart effort that it had better become.

In the beginning, it was easy to see the problem posed by the Independence Party to a candidate without her own, second-natured, sure-footed sense of the politics of New York state; people born and bred in the politics of New York state had trouble figuring out what has been going on in the past year, as it took a court battle to determine that the state chairmanship could legally be wrested from Jack Essenberg and yielded to Mr. MacKay. So while Independence Party activists took to referring to Mrs. Clinton as “Hillary Vacco,” seeing in her efforts to court the party via Mr. Essenberg shades of the futile forays of former Attorney General Dennis Vacco, that criticism was probably unduly harsh. But Mr. MacKay has been in control as of February 4.

Likewise, Mr. Buchanan has long since bolted the Republican Party and emerged as the likely Reform candidate, upgrading the risk status of the Independence line from potentially troublesome to potentially toxic. What is striking, though, is what has happened since then: In February, there was a meeting among the chairmen of the Conservative, Independence and Right to Life parties, to discuss the possibility of a consensus spoiler. Spooked by this, Mr. Giuliani mobilized to get that line. By contrast, Mrs. Clinton receded without retreating.

She could have taken a good look at the line, decided to say, “Yes, there are ideological risks here, but by getting this line, I will choke off Rudy before he gets chugging, so I’m going to go for it.” This would have made some sense.

Alternatively, she could have taken a good look at the long-obvious specter of the Buchanan-Fulani problem, and said, “I cannot afford to offend one Jewish voter and besides, there are so many more Democrats than Republicans in this state, he’s the one who has to scramble for third parties,” turned on her heel, and stalked off toward the moral high ground. And this would have made some sense.

Instead, she has been riding those brakes. She has neither embraced the effort to secure the line, nor abandoned it. Her campaign was inviting Mr. MacKay to attend President Clinton’s event in midtown Manhattan on Monday, April 23, even as it was downplaying the idea that they were wooing him. Called upon to show up at the forum, they had, as of the morning of Tuesday, April 25, neither firmly accepted nor declined, but, citing “First Lady duties” to Mr. MacKay, wished to explore the possibility of appearing via satellite from Washington, D.C. (Campaign sources deny that such conversations occurred at any operative level, giving currency to the idea that they do not really want this nomination–but also to the idea that the right hand is not on particularly chatty terms with the left.) This does not make sense–unless the strategy is to be cautious, defensive, non committal; never to be affirmative or bold or cogent.

As it now stands, Mrs. Clinton will probably not get the Independence line. She will probably survive not having the line. But she will definitely not be able to benefit fully from forfeiting the line.

To court or not to court, that was the question. But a really good answer would have had to come in a long time ago. Here’s A Quandary: Who Wants Buchanan, Mayor or First Lady?