It is, depending on one’s perspective, a delicious and redemptive scenario, a terrible nightmare or, if you are the escapist sort that hasn’t yet cottoned to the hard reality of Election 2000, an unlikely joke. As the fervor surrounding the idea of Hillary Rodham Clinton running for the Senate from New York reaches a high pitch, Democratic supporters and Hillary loyalists are quick to point out that the whole business of H.R.C. running for office sprang full grown from the forehead of Zeus–either in the form of Representative Charles Rangel or Robert Torricelli, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman. Then labor leaders, black leaders, women’s leaders, began beating the drums. In Mexico on February 15, President Clinton himself cautioned that the idea of running had not occurred to Mrs. Clinton until “a lot of people started calling.”
In fact, Hillary Clinton running for office has been a serious topic of dinner table discussion in the residential quarters of the White House for weeks. “It was Elizabeth Dole on the ticket with Bush that really got her going,” said a source close to the family. And while a Senate run in New York or Illinois was considered a strong possibility, Mrs. Clinton was initially leaning toward becoming Al Gore’s running mate. Her concern in those nighttime talks was that Mrs. Dole’s potential presence on the GOP ticket would erode the gender gap that has been critical for Democratic victories in the past few elections.
The 1996 presidential election was marked by an eleven-point gender gap, the largest ever recorded. Women’s votes in 1996 also provided the margin of victory in eight Senate races. In 1994 they won nine Senate races. Republicans have been plagued by an average six- to nine-point gender gap. A woman on the Republican ticket might erase that, so a woman on the Democratic slate could be crucial. Ellen Malcolm, head of EMILY’s List, which promotes women candidates, says, “We can’t afford to lose that advantage with Democratic voters.” Still, Malcolm seemed wary about the prospect of Hillary Clinton on the national ticket. “That’s hypothetical. There’s no point in speculation.” Indeed, the prospect of any Clinton on the ticket in 2000 could be unappealing to an electorate eager to forget the name at the center of a thirteen-month scandal. Moreover, the idea of Mrs. Clinton serving as Gore’s Vice President strains credulity. Hillary has negatives that have been forgotten amid the current lovefest. She is more left wing than most DLC moderates, and she can bring an arrogant, inept political touch to the handling of important issues, such as the ill-fated healthcare reform.
Various scenarios were discussed within the family, which included Mrs. Clinton’s brothers and her mother, who has spent much time in Washington lately. Neither Al nor Tipper Gore was involved in these discussions, which were largely confined to family. The intensity of the effort to recruit Hillary Clinton for the New York race has put the prospect of a vice-presidential bid on the back burner for the moment. The urgency is for her to decide about the New York race.
Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority, says that she loves the idea of Mrs. Clinton running in New York but adds that her presence on the national ticket would be extraordinary. “Sixty percent of the Democratic vote is female, and Hillary Clinton has about a 15 percent gender gap on her side among women. Women love her. She would energize the Democratic base in a way that they would go wild. That won’t happen within the Republican Party for Elizabeth Dole. The Republican base finds her too moderate.”
Does she want to run for office? There is conflict between the side of her that wants a quieter, more private life and the side that not only wants to make policy but loves the game of politics. Her usual inclination in this lifelong inner conflict, says a family friend, falls on the side of battle and politics, a willingness in the end to join the political fight. Whatever her decision, it is likely to come sooner rather than later.