March 5, 2006
The Woman Who Would Beat Hillary Clinton
By John Avlon
Kathleen Troia "KT" McFarland, a 54-year old mother from Manhattan and the highest-ranking female Pentagon official in the Reagan administration, is on the verge of making it official - she's going to run for the Senate against Hillary Clinton.
It would be easy to describe her as Jeanine Pirro without the baggage, but there is more substance behind the similar cosmetic political appeal - KT McFarland possesses more real world national security experience than any New York Senate candidate since Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Sitting down to coffee at a midtown hotel, Mrs. McFarland is polished, yet approachable. Wearing a purple coat and a pin that says "USNA Mom" - the youngest of her daughters is at the Naval Academy in Annapolis - she projects a vibrant intelligence. Though this would be her first campaign, she is clearly comfortable with the world of Washington. This is, after all, the woman who helped craft Ronald Reagan's plans to win the Cold War.
It is more difficult to imagine her as an 18-year old student from Madison, Wisconsin, who boarded a plane for the first time to attend George Washington University in 1969. In search of an after-school job to supplement her scholarship, she applied for a job in the new Nixon administration as a pool-typist. She never imagined that within weeks she'd be working for National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, typing up the daily briefs that wound their way from her fingers to the president's desk every morning.
As Mr. Kissinger's influence increased, so did Mrs. McFarland's role. She worked her way up to witness world-changing events from the inside, such as the end of Vietnam and the opening of U.S.-Chinese relations. As well-timed sojourn at Oxford and a doctoral program at MIT neatly coincided with the Carter years. She returned to influence with the Reagan administration, working alongside Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, serving as a speechwriter, crafting landmark policy addresses such as Secretary Weinberger's "Six Tests for the Use of U.S. Military Power," which became the basis for the Powell Doctrine.
In 1985, she left government to pursue a family life, marrying a New York investment banker and raising their five children for the past 20 years. "I felt like I had done my part in public service," she says, "but then 9/11 changed everything."
With foreign policy issues again at the top of America's agenda, there was a clear logic to her desire to return to the arena. But the absence of competitive races in New York State motivated her as well.
"I spent 20 years of my life fighting against single party rule. It was called the Soviet Union and Communism then," she said. "But we are now allowing our system in the United States to have single party rule in many states. I am worried that we are dividing into 'Blue States' where the Republicans don't run and 'Red States' where Democrats don't run. That's counter to the whole concept of the United States as a place for competitive debates and competitive elections."
Initially, she contemplated running for Congress against Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat who has received few real challenges on Manhattan's East Side. But the Republican Party's difficulty in fielding a competitive candidate against Hillary Clinton inspired her to look higher. Absent a last-minute decision to run by Peggy Noonan (a suggestion without any basis in rumor or fact that I'm floating here for fun), Mrs. McFarland would emerge as the strongest candidate for this admittedly uphill race come the fall. One measure of her success is that in the past three months - without any declared candidacy or fundraising apparatus - Mrs. McFarland has raised more than $600,000 - including donations from Colin Powell and her former boss Caspar Weinberger.
The presence of a new possible new primary challenger has left the former mayor of Yonkers, John Spencer, none too pleased. He has waged a steady, quixotic effort since last year, and the disorganization of the state Republican Party has benefited this conservative anti-abortion activist well. But upon news that Mrs. McFarland might enter the race, his campaign immediately played the right-wing divide-to-conquer card, with spokesman Christian Winthrop releasing a statement saying that, "Anytime a pro-abortion, big-government, elitist liberal is considering a run for the United States Senate, my advice to that person is to try the Democrat Party."
Calling a Reagan administration Cold Warrior a liberal is a pathetic if predictable new low in the tired old knee-jerk politics of ideological purity.
While Mrs. McFarland is, like the vast majority of New Yorkers, pro-choice, she is an unabashed fiscal conservative of the kind we see too few of these days, concerned about government spending and the national debt. "Anyone who keeps the family's accounts knows that you cannot just keep borrowing money," she says, while raising a red flag over countries like China owning a disproportionate amount of our debt, sensibly asking: "Is that a leverage that we really want them to have down the road?"
Likewise, Mrs. McFarland seeks to distinguish herself from Senator Clinton not through personal attacks - what she calls "Gotcha! politics" - but on policy debate. One point of contrast comes in her support of school vouchers. "As a kid who put herself through college on a combination of student loans, scholarships and jobs, we as a society need to encourage the maximum opportunity and responsibility."
"I am in the sensible center" she says, referring to Republicans like Mayor Giuliani and Senator McCain as contemporary political heroes, showing why some party leaders feel she would be able to build the broadest coalition in a campaign. There are many hurdles on the road ahead - a pivotal meeting in June of Republican county chairmen, followed by a September primary and a November general election against an incumbent who is planning to use the campaign as a launching pad to the presidency - but in terms of style and substance, KT McFarland may be the best candidate to beat Hillary Clinton.
John Avlon is a columnist for the New York Sun and the author
of Independent Nation.