D'Amatoing D'Amato

Oct. 30 1998 3:30 AM

D'Amatoing D'Amato

Chuck Schumer has to be Sen. Pothole if he is to beat Sen. Pothole.

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.

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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.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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.

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