Hillary's problem is Hillary

Here we are, one month into 2000, and Hillary Clinton's campaign has already made some serious history. In the space of six months she has somehow found a way to alienate the Puerto Rican vote (with her reversal on Puerto Rican terrorists) the Jewish vote (with her embrace of Yasser Arafat's wife, who'd just accused the Israelis of poisoning Palestinians) and the Mets vote (with her sudden Yankee conversion).

And as if that wasn't history enough, at her official announcement Sunday she even found a way to make playing songs from Billy Joel into a negative. Mr. Joel, Long Island's version of Sinatra, is a staple of any New York campaign's soundtrack. But the song played at Hillary's Sunday announcement, "Captain Jack," comes from Joel's darker (better) period and centers on a man sitting at home alone doing drugs - among other things.

What's next, joint appearances with John Rocker? If there has ever been a more bracing example of the reverse Midas touch in politics, it is hard to recall.

Of course, at Hillary headquarters they maintain these are the usual tone and style problems any campaign faces - particularly one focused on a first-timer like the first lady. Once the ship is righted, they say, Hillary 2000 will ride into office on the women's vote.

This sounds good in theory, but don't count on it. First of all, there is the opponent. Despite Rudy Giuliani's reputation for being hardheaded, mean, and nasty (all possible positives in New York City), his policy positions aren't so unpalatable to women - or to any political moderate for that matter. He is pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, pro-illegal-immigrant. He also has an impressive record to run on as New York City mayor; the city is cleaner, crime is down, and even the Jets are better.

This is primarily why one poll shows Rudy leading Hillary among white women 52 percent to 34 percent.

In the coming months, TV's talkfest will feature endless waves of analysts explaining that women won't vote for Hillary because they see her as an "enabler" for her wandering husband. But this misses the point. When Giuliani was reelected in 1997 he routed a liberal woman, Ruth Messinger, who wasn't "enabling" anyone.

Besides Rudy, Hillary's problem is Hillary. Her campaign seems even more contrived than most as she spouts "dis" and "dat" and "Noo Yawk." As a former resident of New York City - where her support is strongest - I can attest to the fact that people there accept outsiders, but it takes more than a Yankee cap and a (poor) Brooklyn accent to make a New Yorker.

Has she had the pleasure of scowling her way through a midnight subway ride? Or the aggravation of trying to get tickets to a movie - any movie - on Saturday night? These are New Yorkers' common bonds.

For issues like these to even matter, Hillary must first get beyond the flubs she so adeptly - even unconsciously - has been pulling off. Of all the problems she faces, this may prove the most difficult.

Here in Washington, even those who don't like Hillary at least believe she is a principled person - someone who knows what she believes and doesn't bend. This has, at times, been her greatest strength and her greatest weakness. However you view it, there is little question it is directly opposed to politics.

The great gift of Hillary's husband is his ability to say anything - "I am deeply moved by your bad hair day" - and have you believe it. Bill Clinton has perfect pitch when it comes to the music of politics. This is something that, for better and worse, Hillary seems to lack.

All of which brings us to the big question: With all the possibilities available to her, why does Hillary even want this job? Her strengths, righteousness, and zeal would largely be wasted in the Senate anyway. There are any number of issues she could champion and help move forward outside the arena of politics.

And as they watch the repeated errors, this may be exactly what is going through the minds of New York's voters. Why put yourself through the indignity? Why drag Billy Joel's good name through the mud?

*Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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