Master of All He Surveys | The Nation


Master of All He Surveys

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Not only were all policies poll-tested and the reactions to all major speeches measured by polls, but all ads were tested too, in different versions. Morris had adopted this technique from the film industry, in which different endings to the same film are tried out on test audiences. (Thus did Morris, a child of the protest movement of the sixties, give an unexpected twist to the French protest slogan of that decade, L'imagination au pouvoir.) "We created," he boasts, with good justification, "the first fully advertised presidency in U.S. history." At the apex of the system was the President. Clinton was the "day to day operational director of our TV-ad campaign," Morris writes. "He worked over every script, watched each ad, ordered changes in every visual presentation, and decided which ads would run when and where.... The ads became not the slick creations of admen but the work of the president himself." Even potential responses to ads by the Republicans were "mall-tested." "Themes" as well as issues were tested. The agenda for August 1, 1996, reveals that the theme "election is about how we raise our children" beat out the theme "Opptny Responsbty Communty" by 36 percent to 32 percent. One questionnaire contained 259 questions.

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Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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A policy that sacrifices principle to win votes is hardly one that dares speak its name, and that, of course, is one reason that Morris had to be kept in hiding (even, most of the time, from the White House staff). Every now and then, though, Clinton did publicly refer, if in garbled terms, to the Morris strategy. On the eve of signing the welfare bill, for instance, Clinton stated, in words very like Morris's, "Welfare will no longer be a political issue. The two parties cannot attack each other over it. The politicians cannot attack poor people over it." Beating thus around the bush, he left out only the true purpose of the exercise, which was that Republicans would no longer be able to attack him over welfare.

Morris's strategy flowed naturally from his experience as a political crossover artist. Clinton, he thought, should do what Morris himself had done in his consulting career: lift himself above the two parties and occupy a third position--a kind of Archimedean point from which he could leverage the entire political world. This was the essence of the policy for which Morris coined the famous phrase "triangulation" ("third way," the more dignified phrase for this ploy, was not yet a buzzword throughout the West). A politician unbound by either party loyalty or conviction in his choice of policies has obvious advantages over one bound by these constraints. This is not to say that Clinton's Republican opponent, Bob Dole, stayed true to his principles. On the contrary, the centerpiece of Dole's campaign was an irresponsible 15 percent tax cut that traduced his lifelong record of adherence (sometimes at considerable political cost) to fiscal discipline. The election of 1996 was on all sides a veritable bonfire of principles.

Clinton's adoption of Morris's strategy brought turmoil to the White House. The removal, in the face of poll numbers, of human discretion in such substantial matters as the cancellation of federal welfare guarantees naturally distressed men and women who, having won an election, believed themselves to be powerful--"in power." Like Stephanopoulos, they soon discovered otherwise. What galled them, Stephanopoulos wrote, "was the assault on the integrity of our policy-making process, the fact that we were beholden to polls, and the double indignity...of being insulted by a charlatan and hearing no defense from the president in return." In truth, of course, the pollster could never have become a policy-maker except by wish of the President. Yet even Clinton resented the compulsion to walk away from goals he cherished, and at times he vented his frustrations upon his consultant. "You've just given me biased polling on this bill," he railed at Morris. "Did you ever ask if they want me to sign or veto a bill that would let three-year-old children starve, go hungry in the street, because their mother was cut off? You didn't ask that, did you?" Those who love power must bridle at the wholesale reduction of it implicit in Morris's system of obedience to poll results, and Clinton was no exception. But he, too, of course, calmed down and made his peace with the numbers. (Morris told him that "the politics pointed...one way, and one way only: toward signing.")

It is one thing to put your principles up for sale and quite another to get a good return for them in the coin of power (as the sad tale of Dole's 15 percent tax cut makes clear). Now and then, Morris's advice looks ridiculous in retrospect, as when he advised Clinton to wear a darker suit in order to cultivate the image of a "father," since "women crave men who act responsibly--Romance novel themes are now of woman done wrong and rescued by Mr. Right." But far more often it turned out that Morris had developed the techniques that would bring victory. Stephanopoulos, for instance, had to admit before long what was patent to all--that the Morris strategy was working. "I was still concerned about the policy consequences of the [budget] cuts," he writes, "but Morris was absolutely right about the political power of calling for a balanced budget."

In The New Prince, Morris claims that he has distilled the lessons he learned in 1996 into a rulebook that will be valid for winning power in the United States in the next century. In weighing this claim, it's necessary to distinguish between Morris's political strategy in 1996--moving a slightly liberal party to the center--and his techniques of campaigning/governing. It seems likely that the political strategy will prove to have been suitable only to the needs of the particular parties--the more leftward ones--in the Western democracies in the wake of the conservative ascendancy in the years just following the end of the cold war (Bush in the United States, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in England, Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Germany). Morris pursued the strategy whereby the leftish tribes flourished by molting leftish ideas. It is interesting to learn, in Behind the Oval Office, that his model for this strategy was, of all people, France's Socialist president, François Mitterrand, who, according to Morris, politically defanged his conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac by permitting him to enact much of his conservative agenda. More recently, of course, just as Morris learned a lesson from Europe, Clinton's success taught a lesson back, as England's Prime Minister Tony Blair, Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and France's Prime Minister Lionel Jospin have all brought their parties to power by moving them away from a left-wing past. This particular political move, however, belonging to their period, seems unlikely to outlast it for long.

It is otherwise with Morris's techniques. He did not, of course, invent either political polling or paid political advertising. Nor did he invent the use of policy to win votes, or pandering--an art as old, at least, as the Greek origin of this word. What he did do, under the enthusiastic sponsorship of President Bill Clinton, was combine, to an extent previously unknown, these three practices into a rigorous, strategic whole, in which all policies were poll-tested, the results of the polls were used to guide government policy and paid political advertisements were used to beam the welcome news--of real changes in policies, not just in images--over the heads of the news media to the public. It is perhaps above all the systemic character of Morris's method that makes its wide imitation almost inevitable. Like states shopping for weapons or businesses in the market for new technology, politicians rarely dare to risk the competitive disadvantage of forgoing a technique of proven worth. In this new landscape, it is perhaps not Morris but Stephanopoulos who is the more representative figure. He disliked Morris, despised his techniques and fought against their adoption for a while, but then, like most of his colleagues in the White House, he made his pact with the devil and savored the victory when it came. As long as these temptations are on offer, the techniques used in the 1996 election are destined to last.

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