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Hillary’s Senate Run: Good for the Big Apple, Bill, and Al

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Hillary’s Senate Run: Good for the Big Apple, Bill, and Al

By David Kusnet

Conventional wisdom to the contrary, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s all-but-announced senatorial campaign will be good for New York, good for her husband’s presidency, and good for Al Gore’s prospects, too.

Hillary must measure up to the standard set by two other international figures who held the seat she’s seeking, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the retiring incumbent Daniel Patrick Moynihan. If she succeeds, her campaign will have plenty to offer the man in the White House and his handpicked heir.

As with Kennedy and Moynihan, she is a world-class policy expert. And, just as Kennedy’s efforts on law enforcement and civil rights and Moynihan’s expertise on family issues appealed to New Yorkers, so will Mrs. Clinton’s concern for improving public schools and expanding health coverage.

In a state that’s seen everything, few voters were long impressed by Kennedy’s and Moynihan’s celebrity status — much less the fact that each was raised in New York before making his mark elsewhere. What mattered was that both Senators stood for a tough-minded liberalism that is rooted in New York’s civic culture as a port of entry for immigrants striving to build better lives.

That tradition generously offers opportunities of all kinds, from public hospitals to public schools and public universities. But it also demands that people take responsibility for their own lives. That was why Kennedy’s emphasis on “law and order with justice” and Moynihan’s concern for strengthening families won nods of approval from New Yorkers who could have cared less that one man sounded Bostonian and the other sounded almost British.

This linkage of opportunity and responsibility is not only a staple of Bill Clinton’s rhetoric but also the bedrock of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s commitments. As a girl she was immersed in Methodist social gospel. In Arkansas, she championed higher standards for public school students and teachers. And, years before the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, she was a vehement critic of loveless sex and mindless violence in popular culture.

To be sure, her likely Republican opponent, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuiliani, also champions individual responsibility through strict law enforcement and stringent welfare reform. Thus, a Hillary/Rudy match-up will be a battle for the Kennedy/Moynihan mantle of tough-love liberalism. For Mrs. Clinton to prevail, she’ll need to explain why the education, employment, and health care programs that she favors will encourage people to study hard, work hard, form stable families, and live within the law.

As she offers such ideas, she’ll be producing programs and testing arguments that will serve Bill Clinton well as he strives to leave a legacy and can be adapted by Al Gore in his quest for the presidency. With George W. Bush calling for “compassionate conservatism,” the best counter-attack for Democrats at every level will be a tough-minded liberalism that empowers people to improve their own lives but requires reciprocal effort from the people themselves.

If she weren’t seeking a Senate seat, Mrs. Clinton might be one more competing power-center in a White House that already includes a president and his would-be successor. Now, her campaign will be a think-tank and test-marketer for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and it will make her a worthy successor for Bobby Kennedy and Pat Moynihan.


David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton during the 1992 campaign and the first two years of the administration. He is the author of “Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties” and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.