NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y., OCT. 27–Depending on which high-minded pundit you listen to, you know that the Senate race between incumbent Republican Al D’Amato and Rep. Chuck Schumer is either 1) the “dirtiest” or 2) the “ugliest” campaign in New York’s history. It is a campaign, after all, in which the challenger’s slogan is “Too many lies for too long,” where each candidate blithely runs ads accusing his opponent of coddling child pornographers, and where virtually the only intelligible sentences of the so-called debates were “Stop being rude!” and “Let me finish!” Right-thinking New Yorkers (and there are far too many of them) agree: This Senate race is a perversion of democracy.
The goo-goos have it wrong. This race has done exactly what a campaign should: expose the candidates in all their nakedness. Newspapers and commentators solemnly observe that this riot of negative ads and name-calling has cost $40 million (roughly $25 million from D’Amato and the Republican Party, the balance from Schumer and the Democrats). That’s about $2 for every New Yorker. A few weeks ago, Slate’s Steven E. Landsburg wrote a column arguing that every American has got 15 cents worth of entertainment from the $40 million Ken Starr investigation. Well, if there are any New Yorkers who haven’t got $2 worth of diversion out of the Schumer-D’Amato race, I haven’t met them.
Schumer is stumping today with Hillary Clinton. This is fitting, because Schumer would like everyone to believe that Clintonism is the core of his campaign. The Brooklyn representative has spent the last few years doing what Bill Clinton did before his presidential run, shaking off a mostly liberal record and repositioning himself as a moderate who understands suburban voters. Schumer abandoned his opposition to the death penalty, voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, and signed on to every crime bill he could find. At all his campaign appearances, Schumer emphasizes that “I am a tough-on-crime moderate.” Like Clinton, he is counting on liberals to vote for him because they have nowhere else to go.
(Schumer resembles Clinton in another way: He takes credit for everything. Schumer, I learned from his past few days of campaign appearances, is responsible for the national drop in crime, the protection of Social Security and Medicare, and the budget deal. Thank you, congressman! His New York Democratic colleagues have coined the phrase “to Schume.” It means “to take credit for something that others have done.”)
But if Schumer is a Clinton on paper, he certainly isn’t in the flesh. Today’s appearance with the first lady at a New Rochelle senior center makes this glaringly obvious. When Bill and Hillary Clinton appear together, he radiates the warmth. When Schumer and Hillary appear together, she does.
Hillary is chatty and informal. Schumer has all the charm of a lawnmower. To a crowd of genial, upbeat seniors, Schumer serves vicious attacks on D’Amato. He fires off some good lines: D’Amato votes “like a senator from Mississippi, not a senator from New York,” and “When the choice was between Newt Gingrich and seniors, Al D’Amato chose Newt Gingrich.” But the vitriol doesn’t fit the mood. When he’s not flamethrowing, he lectures. He responds to one question from an 81-year-old with an endless, learned, and cringingly dull discourse on health care financing. Schumer is no fun. He’s a grind. If he were a salesman, you’d buy the car just to get him to leave you alone. Even his loyalists don’t seem to like him much. The half-dozen elderly women I spoke to after the event all said the same thing: Of course they would vote for Schumer–but mostly because they hate D’Amato.
(Brief interruption for speculation about Hillary’s peculiar behavior. She clearly loathes D’Amato, and she makes a point of never referring to him by name. She calls him only “Chuck Schumer’s opponent.” Here’s the peculiarity: She also never refers to Bill Clinton by name. She calls him “my husband” or “the president,” never “Bill.” Does this have psychological significance? Is she so angry that she won’t say his name?)
The lesson of the Schumer campaign is not that you need to be Clinton to beat D’Amato, given that the overbearing Schumer will never be Clinton. The lesson of the Schumer campaign is that you need to be D’Amato to beat D’Amato. Clintonism is relentlessness plus charm. D’Amatoism (which is now Schumerism) is just relentlessness, and to hell with the charm.
My mother-in-law, who lives in Schumer’s congressional district and always votes for him, says she’s thinking of supporting D’Amato this year: “He’s a sleaze. But he’s good for the Jews.” Substitute “gays” or “Irish” or “farmers” or “cancer victims” or “bankers” for “Jews,” and you begin to see Schumer’s struggle. Sen. Pothole is the master of the ethnic pork barrel. (He shows up at Jewish gatherings wearing a yarmulke with “Alfonse” stitched on it.) He relies on “We owe him” to override voters’ distaste for his viciousness and basic amorality, and for 18 years, it has.
Schumer doesn’t yet have the pull to imitate D’Amato’s pork-barreling (though he would if he could–Schumer, for example, happily obeys Wall Street’s bidding on the House Banking Committee in order to raise campaign funds). So Schumer has done the next best thing, which is to steal D’Amato’s campaign style.
In Schumer, D’Amato finally faces an opponent who’s as hardheaded, shameless, and effective as he is. Usually D’Amato dictates a campaign, and his opponent desperately plays defense. Schumer has turned the tables on D’Amato. The first day after the Democratic primary, Schumer unleashed “Too many lies for too long” ads. More recently, D’Amato stupidly (but innocently, I think) called Schumer a “putzhead,” then denied having said it. (“Putz” is a Yiddish insult that literally means “penis” but in common usage means “fool.”) Schumer has managed to gin this into an ongoing controversy about D’Amato’s trustworthiness and to score major points with Jewish voters. Since last week’s murder of a New York abortion doctor, Schumer’s people have subtly tried to connect the anti-abortion D’Amato with the extremist right-to-lifers.
And every time D’Amato has attacked, Schumer has fired it back in his face. D’Amato tried to exploit the ill feelings between New York City and upstate. He ran an ad upstate depicting Schumer as a New York City shark swimming up the Hudson. Schumer immediately countered by running the D’Amato commercial in New York City, labeling it “the ad Al D’Amato doesn’t want you to see.” D’Amato’s latest strategy–to tar Schumer as a lazy, “part-time” congressman who skips votes–seems to be backfiring as well. Newspaper after newspaper has berated D’Amato for this patently dishonest strategy, noting that Schumer is probably the hardest-working member of Congress.
Schumer, like D’Amato, is aggressive, opportunistic, and unpleasant in more ways that I care to discover. But there is a fundamental difference between them. D’Amato is the éminence grise (or perhaps the éminence noire) of the corrupt Nassau County Republican machine. He believes that politics is about bending the rules for cronies and campaign contributors, and he has been implicated in more gross behavior than almost any politician around. Schumer is clean. He doesn’t cheat. He may have moderated his views to win, but he is mostly principled and mostly honest.
Even so, out-D’Amatoing D’Amato on the campaign trail may not be enough. Some signs are promising for Schumer. A week out, the polls are dead even and actually seem to be trending slightly in Schumer’s favor. D’Amato has been distracted by Putzgate, and Schumer is getting sweet PR off Hillary’s visit and the president’s planned campaign appearance Friday.
But it’s hard to imagine that D’Amato will lose. He has saved his war chest. He and the GOP will spend $8 million on an ad blitz during the five days leading up to the election: Schumer has saved only a small fraction of that. You can be sure that the D’Amato ads will be cheap and distorted, but that at least something from them will stick to Schumer.
Every article about Schumer notes that he has never lost an election. But neither has D’Amato.
Recent “Campaign ‘98” Dispatches
“The Gambling Gamble“: South Carolina’s Democrats Bet the Farm
“Foghorn Leghorn Meets an Owl“: Sen. Fritz Hollings vs. Rep. Bob Inglis. (posted Tuesday, Oct. 20, 1998)