In Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, one of the subplots is how can Phineas Finn, the young Irish politician, stay in Parliament? He begins in an Irish pocket borough, which is in the gift of a gouty Anglo-Irish earl. Once he has made friends in the Whig party establishment, they find him an English pocket borough that is a chattel of the party elite. But then a reform bill passes; popular sentiment, not influence, is to decide elections. Phineas must find a third constituency.
This is still the British system, though voters, not peers, now make the final choices. Local issues in parliamentary districts count for next to nothing. The party machinery decides which candidates run where, and can always find a seat in a pinch for a deserving figure who is new to the scene, or a veteran who has unaccountably lost.
Who can say that it is a bad system? On average, it probably works as well as ours. But it happens not to be ours. Hillary Clinton, after years at her husband’s side, has decided that she wants a seat of her own. But instead of going to Britain, where they would know how to give her one, she has come to New York.
The Buffalo, N.Y., debate between Mrs. Clinton and Representative Rick Lazio made the contrast, plain since she announced, plainer still. She has a briefing-book knowledge of New York State-just like the diplomats, generals and C.I.A. men who, after spending a few years in South Vietnam, would come back to L.B.J. and tell him what it was really like on the ground. A few questions stumped her: Would her health-care plan have decapitated New York City’s teaching hospitals? Hum-mana hum-mana hum-mana .… Her accent stumped her most of all. Mr. Lazio speaks in vowels that are identifiably from some part of New York State (I would say “a dull part,” but this thing of darkness I, like Prospero, own as mine). Mrs. Clinton sounds like the electronically generated voices you encounter on telephone menus.
Even as she has the knowledge base and the field markings of an outsider, she has the manner of someone who thinks she deserves to become an insider simply by showing up and offering herself to us. She has something that is very good for us, and she is pleased (“happy” would be too strong) to give it to us, and she knows how pleased we will be to receive it. She recalls the well-bred ladies of another century who went into the slums to offer the gaping inhabitants contraceptives and cocoa.
We have a federal system, with states and Congressional districts, because the country is geographically large and temperamentally diverse (it was so even in 1776). We want politicians to have spent real quality time in their constituencies, because it helps them understand what is going on there, and because it allows their constituents to feel akin to the people who represent them. It’s hard enough maintaining either the local knowledge or the sense of connection once our representatives go off to Washington; harder still if they’ve come from Illinois via Arkansas.
Mrs. Clinton does not understand this because she is not a politician-never has been, never aspired to be one. She has spent her life being an activist, a lawyer and a political spouse. The people who fill those roles can do a lot for good or ill, but they are not office holders. Imagine Ralph Reed, Norman Siegel and Nancy Reagan in the Senate, and you will understand the contrast.
Mr. Lazio has problems of his own. He has been campaigning as if his name were Rick Lazy-o. He is said to be arrogant to his staff. (What does he have to be arrogant about?) He needs to do his homework on upstate, which is where the election will be decided. In a state as big as New York still is, the politicians from the Southern Tier have to bone up on Suffolk County, and vice versa. His ideology is a contrast to Mrs. Clinton’s, but a pale one. Her attempts to link him to Newt Gingrich have flopped-Mr. Gingrich is as remote a figure now as Chester Arthur. It’s too bad for Mr. Lazio that he wasn’t more like Mr. Gingrich: Newt gave him access so that the wimpy Republicanism of the Northeast would have a voice. Mr. Lazio remains what he was in 1994, a Pataki Republican, in favor of saving wildlife and killing fetuses.
The ideological differences he does have with her are in his favor. Mrs. Clinton talks about her concern for children, but she is content to leave them at the mercy of a public school system that more and more parents are desperate to flee. Her solution is to shrink class size, which means hiring more teachers to do the same job they are now doing. Mr. Lazio supports vouchers, which would allow Mrs. Cumberbatch and Mrs. Aziz to send their daughters to private schools, just as Mrs. Clinton sent Chelsea to Sidwell Friends. No, come to think of it, Chelsea did go to some public schools-in Little Rock.
Why are we even having these discussions? Even under the British system, Mrs. Clinton would be damaged goods. Her one foray into policy making was her health-care plan of evil memory, which elected a Republican Congress and put her husband on the defensive for the six remaining years of his administration. Hardly a glittering recommendation. Didn’t the Brits tend to give egg layers like that obscure colonial governorships rather than seats in Parliament?
In the American system, we are her consolation prize. Bill got his tail caught in the wrong crack of the celebrity machine, and we are the price for her loyalty. Off the Oval Office is a bathroom sink, the Starr report told us, where the President would deposit inconvenient effluvia. It helped him deal with the side effects of his passions. If we salve his wronged wife by giving her one of our Senate seats, New York will become another bathroom sink.