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Sen. Clinton? What Is She Thinking?

William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

Hillary for Senate? Why in the world would she want to do that? It would mean abandoning herself to the tender mercies of the New York press corps. Think: Don Imus, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal editorial page. And for what? Six more years in Washington. Quite likely, in the minority party. With strict limits on her earning ability. And Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in charge of her schedule. Who needs it?

The conventional wisdom in Washington is, “Nah. She’ll never do it.” That’s the same conventional wisdom that said her husband was finished a week after the Monica S. Lewinsky story broke in January 1998. The same conventional wisdom that said the Republicans would pick up seats in Congress last November. The same conventional wisdom that said impeachment was dead after the Democrats made unexpected gains in that election.

Still, the first lady says she’s giving it serious consideration. What could she be thinking about?

She could be thinking about the Clinton legacy. After all, it’s her legacy, too. In 1992, her husband promised a kind of co-presidency: “two leaders dedicated to America’s future for the price of one.”

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Back in Arkansas, wags used to talk about “the governors Clinton.” In fact, Hillary considered running for governor herself in 1990. When polls showed she might lose, however, Bill Clinton ran for a fifth term and won, after promising Arkansas voters he would finish his term and not run for any other office.

Now he’s made a mess of their legacy, and she has to clean it up. It’s what women all say: If you want to get something done, don’t rely on a man.

Wait a minute. Isn’t Al Gore supposed to be the one who continues the Clinton legacy? Yes, but GOP front-runners George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole are both leading Gore in the polls right now. Gore might lose. Then what would happen to the Clinton legacy?

It would depend on Congress, where Democrats are fighting to regain their majority, the majority they lost in 1994 because of Clinton. Senate Democrats are desperate to hold on to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s New York Senate seat, which could go Republican if New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani enters the race, as expected.

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The first lady is now 18 points ahead of Giuliani in New York polls, but don’t kid yourself. It would be a tough race, as Moynihan himself is reported to have told Hillary Rodham Clinton last week. She would have some explaining to do about her health-care plan. And her overnight success in Wall Street trading. And Travelgate. And Filegate. And the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of Whitewater billing records. And this comment she made last year: “I think that it will be in the long-term interests of the Middle East for Palestine to be a state.”

At her 1994 Whitewater press conference, Clinton said, “I’ve always believed in a zone of privacy, and . . . after resisting for a long time, I feel I’ve been ‘rezoned.’ ” Maybe for Washington, but New York is the twilight zone of politics.

It’s not even certain that Giuliani would be her opponent. The mayor has never been on good terms with other Republicans, especially after he endorsed Democrat Mario M. Cuomo for governor in 1994. But he knows how to seize the moment. There he was in Washington last week, staging a lovefest with GOP congressional leaders. “This would be a national race,” GOP senatorial campaign chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday. “It’s generated an enormous amount of interest in Republican base voters and contributors across the country.”

Beating Clinton would instantly turn Giuliani into a national Republican hero. But former New York Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato has not ruled out running for the GOP nomination. He and Giuliani have never been allies, and D’Amatomight win a GOP primary. Can you imagine a Senate race between Clinton and D’Amato? It’s what they call in professional wrestling, a “steel-cage death match.”

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Gore’s people are not too thrilled at the prospect of seeing Hillary Clinton run. The resources and attention of the White House would be split between two campaigns. They would compete for Democratic money and talent. And for control of the Democratic message. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates everywhere would be deprived of the party’s strongest campaign asset: the first lady, speaking and raising money for other Democrats.

It’s not hard to find reasons why Clinton shouldn’t do it. But there she is, talking to New York Democratic leaders and political operatives. It’s certainly creating a frenzy in the press. Finally, something to talk about after Monica! A lot of Democrats are thrilled by the prospect of having Clinton in the Senate. It’s a political-revenge fantasy for constituencies that feel disempowered.

Like the Northeast, a region that has been losing power to the Sunbelt for decades. New York’s gone from 45 electoral votes in 1960 to just 33 in 2000. As the Northeast has lost power, it has become more Democratic, at least in national politics.

The question is whether New Yorkers will vote on local issues or national issues. Polls show that New Yorkers rate Clinton better than Giuliani on national issues like health care, education and taxes. They say she’d know more about how to get things done in Washington and they’d be prouder to have her as their senator. Giuliani is rated better on crime, a local issue. Not surprisingly, voters say he knows and cares more about New York.

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For New Yorkers to elect Clinton would be to make a statement about New York’s national political values. Even if it means electing someone who has never lived in New York. “So what if she doesn’t know a cannoli from a knish?” New York voters would say. “She says what we think about national issues.” This is a Senate election, remember, and New Yorkers have never been reluctant to claim they know how to run the country.

Her election would also be the revenge of the cities, which have been losing power to the suburbs. So what if Giuliani is the twice-elected mayor of New York City? Outside New York City, Giuliani wins. But Clinton beats the mayor by better than 2 to 1 in his own city. Won’t New York City rally to its mayor? Not necessarily. Giuliani’s job ratings have dropped in the last few months, as police brutality has become a growing concern.

It would be the revenge of women as well. The first lady gets a double boost from women, who identify with both her and her husband for different reasons. They feel she’s the victim of his bad behavior. He’s the victim of unscrupulous attacks by his enemies. Male New Yorkers give Giuliani the edge. Women prefer Clinton by a huge margin.

It would also be the revenge of Democrats for all the harsh partisan abuse they feel they’ve suffered. No one can rally the party faithful like Clinton. New York Democrats go 3 to 1 for her, while Giuliani carries independents and Republicans.

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It’s the revenge of liberals, who may have found a new hero in Clinton. Liberals have always felt closer to her than to her husband. What better way of putting a liberal stamp on the Clinton legacy than to put Hillary Clinton in the Senate? Better even than electing Gore. Gore leads Gov. George W. Bush by 9 points in New York--half Clinton’s margin. And Bush is a Texan! There are a lot of liberals in New York, and for them, it’s the Hillary Clinton side of the Clinton legacy they want to preserve, not the Gore side.

Last week, a guy who knows New York had some advice for the first lady. Never mind the Senate, Cuomo said. How about the national ticket? He thought Hillary Clinton would make a good vice presidential candidate for the Democrats. There’s the ticket! Democrats could just turn their campaign buttons upside down: Clinton-Gore in 1996, Gore-Clinton in 2000.

Actually, both parties have a strong incentive to put a woman on the ticket. Republicans because the GOP is hurting badly with women voters. Democrats because they need to make it clear that Bill Clinton’s locker-room antics are a thing of the past. No one ever runs for vice president, of course. Dole has her eye on the top spot. No problem. The Constitution originally said you had to run for president in order to become vice president. It worked for George Bush in 1980.

Gore-Clinton versus Bush-Dole--haven’t we seen this picture before? No, this is a remake, with female costars. If that happens in 2000, you know what’s around the corner: Hillary Clinton versus Elizabeth Dole for president. The only problem is, where are they going to find decent men to be their running mates?*

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