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  •   D'Amato vs. Forbes?

    By James K. Glassman
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, August 5, 1997; Page A15

    opinion
    Alfonse D'Amato, chairman of the Banking Committee, is the most vulnerable Republican senator up for a fourth term in 1998. That honor is richly deserved. The smarmy D'Amato is an embarrassment to party, state and Congress – and not just because of his recurring problems with the ethics committee.

    Like more and more of his GOP colleagues these days, D'Amato has no fixed set of beliefs. He wets a finger, sticks it in the breeze, checks the polls and decides where he stands. A similarly cynical process applies to fund-raising, where D'Amato has mastered the art of keeping alive issues that generate copious donations – most notably, the aging cash cow of Glass-Steagall banking reform. Financiers may despise D'Amato, but they have to give to his campaigns.

    So far, he's raised $8.6 million, or only $3 million less than he spent in 1992, and the race is still 15 months off. He'll need the money. A Mason-Dixon/PMR poll, conducted July 27-29, shows that Democrat Geraldine Ferraro, the former vice presidential candidate and current CNN "Crossfire" host, is leading him 48 percent to 34 percent. Ferraro hasn't yet decided to run, but Mark Green has, and the poll shows that the New York City Public Advocate, whom D'Amato clobbered in 1986, can also beat the senator. And a third Democrat, Rep. Charles Schumer, is running neck and neck.

    "Exactly why D'Amato earns the ire of New York voters is readily apparent," writes Charles Cook, the nation's top congressional-election analyst. "He suffered greatly in the eyes of the public during the Whitewater hearings he chaired in 1995 and 1996, as well as during his own ethics troubles in the early 1990s, and he is abrasive."

    No wonder D'Amato has been making so many miraculous conversions. Where once he ripped up pictures supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, he's now a prominent backer of the NEA. Despite a zero rating in 1996 from the League of Conservation Voters, he's been running TV ads touting himself as an environmentalist, "showing him cavorting with his daughters along the sandy Long Island shores," as a skeptical New York magazine put it.

    In his last reelection race, in 1992, he attacked his opponent, Democrat Bobby Abrams as "hopelessly liberal." Yet today, D'Amato, in his support of federal intervention throughout the economy, is pretty liberal himself. He enthusiastically backed a higher minimum wage, voted against limiting punitive damages in product liability cases, and, according to Newsday, led "the charge to make legal immigrants eligible for welfare benefits after voting last year to bar them."

    Also, says New York, "careful consideration of actuarial tables showed him just how relentless a killer breast cancer is," so he wants Washington to prescribe treatment for mastectomies. He opposed ending rent control and wants the Clean Air Act toughened.

    At hearings last week, he extolled his bill to bar ATM operators from charging fees to non-customers, prompting Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) to respond, "If we set the price on the service and convenience of ATM machines, how long will it be before we set the price of bread at the local market." Alas, such sophisticated matters of political philosophy elude Senator Pothole.

    Can anything be done about D'Amato? Yes. A certain free-market conservative could give him a whipping that would be a joy to watch. This potential candidate, who, at the moment, has not considered making the race and doesn't even live in New York, would be able to use the campaign as a national stage to raise issues being obscured by congressional Republicans who have been nearly as eager to sell out as D'Amato.

    The candidate is Steve Forbes. He lives in New Jersey, but he's worked in New York all his life and could easily switch his residence; Robert F. Kennedy, after all, moved from Virginia to New York in midsummer 1964 and won election months later.

    The only drawback to this idea is that Forbes doesn't want to run for Senate. Also, he's backing D'Amato for reelection. "Steve has an interest in running for only one office," Bill Dal Col, his campaign manager, told me. That's president.

    But the truth is, Forbes is not going to get elected president unless he gets elected something else first. While he's certainly improved as a campaigner since his miserable performance last year, he's still wooden and unappealing. He needs to test his ideas with a tough public and hostile media and develop the kind of style that can only be forged in the crucible of a white-hot Senate race. If he wins, he'll be a national hero for ridding Washington of D'Amato – and perhaps D'Amato-ism, the ideology of personal and political gain over any kind of principle.

    Forbes stands for the right things: a flat tax that would lower rates, end loopholes and use the code to raise revenue rather than direct behavior; less regulation; free trade; and, the most important public policy issue of all, ending Social Security as we know it and letting young Americans take care of their own retirements. He's also one of the few Republicans with the guts to criticize the egregious budget deal.

    But does Forbes have the courage and imagination to take on D'Amato? If not, there's always another growth-school Republican who needs a second chance to prove himself: a real New Yorker named Jack Kemp. But I'm holding out for Forbes vs. D'Amato – the match of the decade.

    The writer is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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