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From RFK to HRC

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Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

THIS PIECE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE GREENSBORO NEWS AND RECORD ON APRIL 25, 1999.

From RFK to HRC

by David Kusnet

Too tough. A carpetbagger. Never held elective office. And trading in on a famous name.

Thirty-five years ago, these charges were hurled at Robert F. Kennedy’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate from New York. Now, almost identical attacks are being made against Hillary Rodham Clinton. But, just like RFK, Mrs. Clinton could be a wining candidate — and a great Senator.

Calling Mrs. Clinton a stranger to New York misses the point. The Empire State is so diverse and its needs so demanding that the best way for its Senators to represent their constituents is to speak out effectively on national and even international issues. And the issues on which Mrs. Clinton has made her name — improving public schools, expanding health care coverage, and helping welfare recipients find jobs that pay a living wage — just happen to be among the issues of greatest concern to New Yorkers.

Even her international priority — insisting that “women’s rights are human rights” — has a special appeal to New Yorkers. It scores with feminists who value her high-profile advocacy, ethnics concerned with human rights abuses in their home countries, and blue-collar folks fearful of competition from economies where workers have no rights and slow wages.

When it comes to selecting Senators, New Yorkers have more often turned to potential national figures, even if they were born elsewhere, than to more parochial politicians, who wouldn’t play well on the national stage. Had he survived the turbulence of 1968 but not become president, few doubt that Robert Kennedy could still be serving as Senator. Indeed, his seat was soon taken by a Connecticut Republican, James Buckley, whose supporters must have hoped he’d be as articulate a conservative spokesman as his brother, Bill. And Buckley, in turn, was defeated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan — a former assistant Labor Secretary, envoy to India, and U.N. Ambassador, whose Hell’s Kitchen boyhood had become a distant memory.

Far from outsiders, it’s New York City mayors who have a hard time making it to the U.S. Senate. New York voters rejected Robert F. Wagner, Jr., whose father had been labor’s champion in the U.S. Senate, and John V. Lindsay, who had been lionized as the leading voice for urban America. That’s because the rest of New York fears being shortchanged in favor of the city, and Senators need different talents from executives. And no one is more the executive and less the legislator than New York City’s curt, crusty mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who figures to be Mrs. Clinton’s Republican opponent.

But, if Rudy suffers from being identified with New York City, Hillary should not let herself be branded as a Manhattan liberal. Just as voters statewide are scared of New York City, voters in the city’s “outer boroughs” resent Manhattan, and their aversion is shared by suburbanites and upstaters as well. Indeed, the antagonism of Manhattan’s affluent liberals endeared Robert Kennedy to his core constituencies of blue-collars, white ethnics, and racial minorities.

Mrs. Clinton should take a leaf from Kennedy’s book before Giuliani (an RFK backer in his youth) does. In addition to reaching out well beyond Manhattan liberals, as she’s already doing, she should embrace RFK’s trademark blend of economic populism, racial healing, and tolerant social conservatism. It’s the politics President Clinton has espoused at his best moments, and it will be a wining formula for the First Lady as well.

[ POSTED TO VIEWPOINTS ON MAY 14 ]

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton from 1992-94. He is the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

See more work by David Kusnet