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Master of All He Surveys | The Nation

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Master of All He Surveys

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As the presidential election of 1996 got under way, the press began to report that Bill Clinton's campaign strategy was heavily influenced by the advice of a shadowy figure who had no title in either the campaign or the White House, the pollster and consultant Dick Morris. His emergence at the time was reminiscent of the equally sudden appearance in 1986 of Oliver North, the mastermind of the Iran/contra doings in Reagan's White House. Both men had been working in secrecy and were all but unknown to the public. Both were considered charlatans by many of those they worked with, yet each gave authentic expression to a deep-rooted proclivity of the President he served. Each was hidden from public view by his President for as long as possible. (Morris aptly called himself a "bird perched on the President's left shoulder"--though in truth, right shoulder would have been more like it.) Both were deeply suspect to the public, yet both possessed a keen intuitive feeling for the public mood. Both turned out to wield power greatly out of proportion to their formal roles. Both were enveloped in scandal and forced to leave the White House.

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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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We are now in a position to know that of the two secret operatives, Morris was by far the more powerful. There appears to be no major area of policy that escaped his influence. The first clear evidence of the true extent of this influence came in his memoir Behind the Oval Office, in which he reports that at times he browbeat and bullied the President himself. Consider the scene in which, according to him, he upbraids Clinton for failing to take his advice sufficiently:

I put my hands on his upper arms and squeezed them. Then I looked straight at him and shook him harshly, violently. I said through clenched teeth, "Get your nerve back. Get your fucking nerve back." He looked at me through bloodshot, weary eyes and with his face downcast solemnly nodded yes.

Or consider the scene in which Morris, having straightened out the White House, is next seen ruling the waves at the Senate, where, using a back channel to newly elected Republican majority leader Trent Lott, he solicits Lott's agreement to commit the legislative and executive branches to a program of cooperation on all major upcoming legislation:

"Well, I've got my end [the White House] under control, and it looks like you've got yours [the Senate]," I said.
   "So what do we do with it?" Lott asked.
   "Let's pass everything," I answered.
   "Sounds good to me. Let's get started," the Senator replied.
   Lott had taken to calling me Mr. Prime Minister....

The picture of Morris's influence suggested by these stories could be taken as runaway egomania were not its substance confirmed both by documentary evidence and other accounts that have now become available. One source is All Too Human, the memoir of the political adviser and counsel to the President, George Stephanopoulos, whom Morris in a way supplanted when Clinton hired him. Morris's and Stephanopoulos's memoirs both portray, consciously and unconsciously, the "intoxicating" (Stephanopoulos), "addictive" (Morris), metabolism-ruining, conscience-bending influence of derivative power, with its capacity to play havoc with its possessors' personal lives, wreck their health and gut their principles. Both writers make creditable postbinge attempts to turn a cold eye on their recent performances, but these, perhaps inevitably, are only partially persuasive. (The distorting and reductive influence of power on the inner life of human beings, flattening them to a boring and predictable sameness, is perhaps the reason that no truly first-rate novel has ever been written about a politician--though plays, of course, are another story.)

Stephanopoulos, whose book appeared after Behind the Oval Office and who had every reason to deflate Morris's boasting, instead essentially confirms it. "As Dick's power grew, mine receded," he candidly observes, and he goes on to recount Morris's remarkable string of victories in the White House battles over policy and strategy. Stephanopoulos, who is often said to look like a choirboy and who in fact once was a choirboy, was disgusted by Morris's advice to Clinton. Soon, however, he understood that the President backed Morris. What's a choirboy to do when the head priest has made his will known? Stephanopoulos joined forces with Morris in what he calls a "pact with the devil."

Another addition to the record is Morris's new book, The New Prince: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-First Century, chiefly a how-to manual, based on Morris's immense experience (over a hundred campaigns), for winning elections. The third and most important--yet least noticed--new addition, however, is the publication, in the paperback edition of Behind the Oval Office, of almost 200 pages of Morris's typewritten "agendas" for the Clinton campaign's main strategy meetings between December of 1994, when the White House was reeling from the loss of both houses of Congress to the Republicans in the recent elections, and the Democratic convention in August of 1996, when Morris was fired after it was revealed that he had been sleeping with a prostitute and letting her hear the President's voice over the telephone. The newly published agendas, together with Morris's illuminating exegesis, are perhaps the richest windfall of material from a presidential campaign since the equally neglected publication in the records of the Watergate Senate Select Committee of the campaign strategy memos that President Richard Nixon was receiving in 1972 from his communications director, Pat Buchanan.

In 1996 I happened to be writing a column on the election for Newsday. I duly noted, as others did, Clinton's shift to the right, his ideological cherry-picking, his reliance upon the advice of Morris and the resulting "poll-driven" appearance of the campaign. What was difficult to imagine at the time, however, was that the country was simply witnessing the unfolding, stage by carefully calculated stage, of a deeply considered, comprehensive, carefully charted political plan by the Democratic President not to oppose basic Republican policies but actually to adopt and implement them. Morris had observed that political parties slumped not only when their programs were defeated but also when they were successfully implemented. "Their mandate," he explains in Behind the Oval Office, "runs out and the public no longer has a pressing reason for voting for them." Thus, for example, Churchill and his Tories were rejected by the British immediately after they had won the Second World War, and George Bush, a "foreign policy President" who enjoyed dizzying 80 percent and even 90 percent positive poll ratings just after the Gulf War, looked useless to voters once the war was won. (In The New Prince, Morris refers to the strategy of agreeing with your opponent's popular stands as "hugging" the opposition.) The plan for 1996, as he put it in a memo to Clinton, should therefore be to "fast-forward the Gingrich agenda." Item A on the agenda for a strategy meeting on May 4, 1995--that is, a full year and a half before the election--stated, "Republican Party is based on five messages." They were: "1. Fiscal/Economic 2. foreign/defense 3. racial 4. crime 5. social." Item B stated, "When Republicans are Reduced to Only Social Message [abortion, antigay sentiment, etc.], they lose." Conclusion: "Strip" the Republicans of the first four by abandoning the Democratic positions and adopting the Republican positions. (It was this resolve that lent substance to Morris's offer to Lott to "pass everything.") First, in the words of the agenda, Clinton should "give absolute priority to making a deal" on balancing the budget. Second, in the memo's words, he should "use foreign policy situations to demonstrate your strength and toughness to the American people." Third, he should "neutralize the crime issue" with "more police," "tougher sentencing" and other steps. Fourth, he should "relieve" racial resentments (at any rate, those felt by whites against people of color) by "curtailing illegal immigration" and redefining affirmative action as a remedy for injuries not of race but of class. Stephanopoulos sheds light on number 2: When he expressed concern to Morris over the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs, Morris shocked him by answering, "Yeah, well, they're slaughtering the Bosnians, but so what?" He went on to explain, "I want to bomb the shit out of the Serbians to look strong." The adoption of 80 percent of the Republicans' agenda would leave them with only 20 percent--the "social" issues--and these, recent history had shown, were insufficient for victory. As we know, Clinton did in fact adopt all of the policies recommended by Morris--did offer a balanced-budget plan, did sign the Republican welfare bill, did get tough on criminals, did bomb Serbian forces in Bosnia. We cannot rule out the possibility that some of these policies were adopted on the merits (I am among those who think that Clinton's resolve to balance the budget was sound policy), yet it is striking that none of the policies Morris recommended for political reasons were rejected. (The one partial exception was the affirmative action policy, on which a compromise was reached.)

Morris possessed unique qualifications to frame and execute such a strategy. He had worked for candidates of both parties and of every imaginable political stripe. Who else in, say, the past twenty-five years has worked for candidates as disparate as Bella Abzug and Jesse Helms? He had also worked for, among many others, the presidential candidates George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and George Bush; the Democratic senators Howard Metzenbaum, Jeff Bingaman and David Pryor; the Republican senators Trent Lott (on whose campaign to become majority whip Morris was consulting when Clinton summoned him to the White House), Dan Coats and Paula Hawkins; and an assortment of governors, including Clinton, with whom Morris had worked extensively in Arkansas. The advantages to a Democrat of hiring a consultant who knew Republican politics from the inside--or vice versa--were obvious. Even if Morris did not divulge any trade secrets strictly speaking, he was in the position of a double agent who carries the knowledge of two antagonistic powers to each other, profiting and harming both in equal measure while benefiting himself.

Morris makes a few cursory and completely unconvincing attempts to find some consistency in this political smorgasbord of clients ("I liked Metzenbaum, Abzug, Lott, Coats, and Hawkins for the same reason: they had something good to say"); but the fact is that Morris, who is subtle, original and brilliant regarding the techniques of politics, evinces scarcely any interest, in either of his books, in the substance, considered for its own sake, of any public issue. He is instead monomaniacally concentrated, as his choice of Machiavelli for a hero plainly suggests, on the methods by which power can be won and kept under modern conditions. Yet Morris is anything but contemptuous of issues. On the contrary, he adores them. As he says in The New Prince--issues are important for the very "pragmatic" reason that it is "issues" in general, not "images" in general, that win elections. Or, to be exact, issues are the best way of creating the images that win elections, for issues are "a form of symbolic speech." The point--which indeed defies recent conventional wisdom--is that "image advertisements pushing 'feel good' themes don't create lasting support," only positions on issues will. On the same grounds, he calls for more "idealism" in politics. We are left to ponder whether "idealism" chosen strictly on pragmatic grounds (with no particular content specified) is in fact idealism.

How, then, to "choose your issue"? The answer: "Polling is the key to selecting the right issue." Of his political technique, Morris told Stephanopoulos, "My team is like the politburo. We work together, everyone has a say, and when we disagree, we submit the decision to the ultimate master of the Western world--the polls." Thus the shadowy master in charge of the Clinton campaign, as the public was increasingly led to believe in the summer of 1996, was not the shadowy mastermind Dick Morris; it was the public's very own self--at any rate, the ghostly incarnation of itself that appeared in polling results.

From time to time, Morris avows that he does not advise politicians to make substantive decisions on the basis of polls; he says he believes polls should be used merely to help get across ideas they already know they believe in. Yet there is scarcely a page in either book that does not contradict this claim. Morris's agendas for the Clinton campaign meetings recommend substantial policy decisions. Supposedly, Morris was hired by Clinton to create a strategy for the campaign; but what this secret adviser, cut off most of the time from the rest of the White House staff, in actuality gave Clinton was a strategy for governing--a strategy for governing, that is, geared to producing victory in the campaign. He therefore spoke the truth in Behind the Oval Office when he wrote, "I don't 'spin' anything, I put new ideas and substance before the voters."

In the meeting agendas, we see Morris continuously and rigorously poll-testing positions on issues and, in almost every case, recommending that the President adopt the more popular position. A characteristic method of the agendas is to list issues together with a polling number. In a section of an agenda for March 16, 1995, he notes, under the heading "Things We Like," "Cutoff to legal immigrants (poll 50-47 split)" and "Cutoff for welfare for extra children while on AFDC (poll 64-32 supp. cut)." A "Ranking of State of the Union Values Message" for a strategy meeting on February 22, 1996, listed twenty-three positions on issues according to the percentage of voters "more likely" to vote for Clinton if he embraced the position ("fathers care for kid--55%," "foreign lobbyists--47%," "evict from public housing--36%," etc.). In April of 1996, Morris took a poll to discover which interest groups had the "worst image." Discovering that the images of tobacco companies and the NRA were worse than that of the Christian Coalition, he recommended, "Good offense possible against tobacco and NRA, but not against Christian Coalition." Morris "flatly" advised the President that to veto the Republican welfare bill would cost him the election, for "Mark Penn had designed a polling model that indicated that a welfare veto by itself would transform a fifteen-point win into a three-point loss." (Clinton, of course, signed the bill just before the Democratic convention.)

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.

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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