Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties
By Dick Morris’s own account, he represents President Clinton’s dark side.
When Clinton faces political adversity, he switches into his politician mode. In this mind-set, he doesn’t spurn the process; he tries to win. While still faithful to his basic principles, he becomes an astute and acute political warrior. I used to sense that he dislikes himself in this mode and didn’t like me much, either, for embodying it…. (Psychiatrists call it splitting when someone fails to integrate good and bad in a unified, coherent personality.)
After he helped Clinton win the Arkansas governorship in 1978, Morris was fired: “In the trenches, I was a necessary evil. But once Clinton had been elected governor, my style seemed undignified.”
It is easy to see, from this book, why Morris was considered evil—he is a lickspittle to those above him, arrogant and abrasive to those around or below him. But why has he so often seemed necessary? In the role of political-consultant-as-hired-gun, he resembles Lee Atwater or Roger Ailes in the past, Frank Luntz or James Carville in the present, in his ferocious concentration only and always on the political presentation of his client. When others think a candidate cannot win, these people tirelessly invent new ways of making the candidate win. They are willing to do whatever it takes, and they subordinate other considerations to the electoral appeal of their client. Morris boasts that he coached Clinton, or tried to coach him, on everything he said or did, everything he advocated or avoided, with a view to his standing in the polls. It is also clear that he tried to shove away from the President all those with competing claims (all but Clinton’s wife, whom Morris cultivated as shamelessly as he denigrated others).
Clinton tried to put buffers between Morris and the rest of his aides, so they would not expend their energies in battles over turf. That is one reason he kept Morris’s role secret for so long, even from his staff. If Morris was made to feel important because of this mystery, it would limit his efforts to feel important by disruptive attempts at domineering his rivals. Yet this put a great burden on the braggart side of Morris. He took whatever occasions were left him to show off his connection with the President—boasting to Republican ex-clients, to hotel keepers (the President of the United States would be calling), and even to the poor prostitute who had to listen to his phone calls with Clinton (her importance to his ego may have lain as much in her purchasable ear as in her shapely toe).
What Morris calls the lack of a “coherent personality” in Clinton, one that would unite his good and his dark sides, was seen at first as a split between campaigning and governing. Morris, at that time known for his negative advertising (he admits “I was one of the first consultants to use such ads”), was called in to help Clinton win his Arkansas governorship in 1978, and to win it back in 1982; then he was dismissed, each time, when the goal was achieved. In his first term as governor and his first two years as President, Clinton thought he could choose and implement policies without a continual soliciting of popular support. The candidate was suppressed temporarily in favor of the policy wonk. That meant, in the first presidential years, framing a health plan in isolation from public reaction. But after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, Clinton called Morris back to help him govern as well as campaign.
In the 1995 shutdown of the government the Republicans, fierce for principle, thought they could ignore public reaction, while Clinton was measuring the people’s response, minute by minute, and calibrating his moves to suit that response. The polls showed that the public was blaming the Republicans for the shutdown, that Clinton could hold firm until polls signaled a disgust with the whole scene.
Every night at the height of the budget crisis we polled to measure the public’s reaction. Our interviewers started phoning at seven in the evening and continued until one the next morning, eastern time, to catch West Coast voters before they went to bed. At about four in the morning, I would awaken to the sound of my fax machine as it spit out the poll results that had been collected only a few hours earlier. Each morning at seven-twenty, I called George [Stephanopoulos] with the data from the previous night’s interviewing so he could report to the daily seven-thirty meeting that Leon [Panetta] held with the top White House staffers (which I never attended). When the president was awake, he’d take my call, so he could start his day with a summary of the latest polling situation.
That vignette shows how specialized information gathering has become. Only a decade ago, Lee Atwater impressed people with his up-to-the-minute knowledge:
Lee wanted to keep up, to have the best information. And if information was power, timely information could be awesome. At eleven-thirty each night he had a staffer deliver the next morning’s Washington Post to him at home so that he could read it and start making calls at five AM, telling others what they should be ready for. 1
That seems like the information dark ages when compared to Morris’s operation. Morris was not only up-to-the-minute on news but on the whole nation’s reactions to the news.
Of course such intensive polling takes a lot of money. The pollster’s questions, to yield usable subtleties, must be constantly reframed, tested, verified by cross-testing techniques, and the process must be continual in order to be reliable. Then the poll results are used for an even more expensive purpose, the framing of targeted TV ads for the tested audiences. Morris situated himself at the key financial nexus point between these two expenditures, completing the unholy trinity of polls, ads, and money.
Though Morris calls his strategy of “triangulation” a metaphor from sailing, he seems to think more basically in terms of human triangles, with himself at the apex playing off two other people—Morris between the President and Mrs. Clinton, or Morris between Clinton and Trent Lott (the Republican Senate majority leader who was Morris’s former client and his “back channel” to the Republicans), even Morris between Clinton and the prostitute. But the most important Tinker to Evers to Chance in his recent work for the President was: Penn to Morris to Squier. Morris insisted on having his choice of pollster (Mark Penn’s firm) and television ad maker (Bob Squier’s firm). The President preferred the adman from his 1992 campaign, Frank Greer, and Ms. Clinton opposed Squier strenuously, but Morris, while accommodating them on most things, would not give up on his choices. He reports the President’s objection this way:
“If you control each aspect of the media and the polling, how can I control the process? How canI get different options and choices? How do I keep control?”
Control. The key word.
It was the key for Morris. He managed, in time, to control Penn, who had tried to create a new triad (Clinton and Penn and Morris) by moving into the White House to work directly with the President. Morris had Penn expelled from the White House and restored to his position in the Penn-Morris-Squier schema. Morris claims that his maintenance of this iron triangle, with himself as the only over-lap with the other key team (Clinton, Morris, and Ms. Clinton), was done for efficiency and high-quality performance. But an article by James Warren of the Chicago Tribune established that the team was also important to Morris’s own pocketbook.2
Morris frequently talks, in his book, of the sacrifices he made in going with Clinton. The base of his business to that point had been with Republican candidates. They would not accept him back, he claims (though he carefully maintained his ties with Senator Lott). He would risk this loss of clients for two motives—patriotism and ego satisfaction: “You don’t say no to the president. Besides, I needed the [power] fix too badly.”
Technically, Morris took no money from the White House. He drew $14,000 a month as a consultant to the Democratic National Committee. But, according to James Warren’s White House sources, he split three ways the fees Bob Squier’s firm collected from state Democrats and other sources for the placement of TV ads—$55 million worth for the year preceding the Democratic convention last August.3 Squier began by taking 15 percent from this sum and dividing it with Penn’s firm and with Morris himself. As the scale of the advertising became more grandiose, the President grumbled: “Why are you letting Squier make all that money?” The percentage was brought down, eventually to half of the original 15 percent. But even by a cautious estimate that meant that Morris alone took away nearly a million and a half—and was in line, before his fall, to make almost that much again in the heavy advertising of the final stage of the campaign. Besides, we know now that he had secretly negotiated a deal for the book that just appeared, giving him another two-and-a-half million dollars—not bad for a year’s work.
Too many have accepted Morris’s promotion of himself as a donor, principally, of ideas and policy to Clinton. What he really gave him was a mechanics, skillfully tended, for turning cash into polls and polls into ads. Of course, Morris says nothing about his own financial stake in the structure he created to serve his interests while serving Clinton. But he does reveal, indirectly, a good deal about our system’s present dependence on the triangle he belonged to, that of polling and television and money. He also shows us how Clinton’s campaign was corrupted by the need to keep up the huge cash flow Morris demanded. It is worth looking at each item in the triad:
Polls. No presidency has been as poll-driven as this one. Even before the campaign proper began, Morris reveled in the luxury of taking polls for all possible contingencies:
Clinton gave us a virtually unlimited budget for polling and mall testing. We spent months in war games figuring out how to handle different budget-fight scenarios or different Republican attacks on issues. When the hypothetical became a reality, we had only to push a button on the computer, and the mall test and the poll for that situation would pop up.
It is conventional to deplore a politician’s dependence on polling and to contrast it with action from principle. But in a democracy it is a matter of principle to consult the people’s attitudes and desires. And it is absurd to contrast sensitivity to the public during campaigns with attitudes maintained between elections, as if the people had no say except when voting. Franklin Roosevelt learned, during the “court packing” struggle, that one cannot govern in a democracy without a continual cultivation of popular support for one’s measures. Public opinion is not the enemy of democratic government but its basis. Perhaps at one time, long ago, when newspapers were mainly the organs of moneyed interests and there were few other avenues for public expression, elections were the only trustworthy expression of the popular will. That is no longer the case. Republicans recognized their own debt to talk radio in mobilizing support for them during the health care fight. The measuring and mobilization of popular responses is inevitable in our system.
Besides, as Morris rightly argues, polls have not always dictated the positions Clinton took. Sometimes they told him how to frame and defend positions already chosen. If he simply followed polled majorities, he would support school prayer, he would oppose affirmative action. Polling equipped him to argue for affirmative action in a way that appealed to the nuanced support for it discoverable in the people’s complex attitudes, or oppose required school prayer while assuaging the demand for a moral dimension to education.
What use were the polls? Morris learned what things to emphasize, what to neglect. Clinton wanted to talk about cutting the deficit and creating jobs, but Morris learned people either did not believe these claims or did not care about them—that it was a waste of time and money to advertise them, though Clinton kept trying to. “Stop trying to get elected for the right reasons. Just try to get elected.” Morris is blamed for or credited with a rightward shift in Clinton’s positions after the loss of Congress in 1994, and he clearly prefers to be known as an entrepreneur of ideas rather than a financial opportunist. But it took no sophisticated polling to know the public was supporting the Republicans in 1994. Clinton did not so much have to shift rightward as find weak spots in the Republicans’ euphoric ambitions (like cutting Medicare) and ways to frame his as the responsible approach to smaller government.
From his time as head of the Democratic Leadership Council Clinton had favored smaller (“reinvented”) government, and he had always proposed getting people off welfare and into jobs (the “ending welfare as we know it” of his 1992 campaign). He had granted forty-three states waivers to experiment in programs for doing that, even before he signed the welfare bill. The polls told him 1995 was the time to push for welfare reform. The Republicans gave him a bill with a high cost for this move—the canceling of federal guarantees to the poor—but it was the cost of a product he had always meant to buy. The polls told him it was not only safe but advantageous to do that during the campaign (while pledging to “fix” the bill once he got re-elected). Morris did less to set strategy than to show the most effective ways to “spin” the policies Clinton was already predisposed to adopt, and what themes to keep hammering home with Morris’s incessant ads.
Despite all necessary concessions to the legitimacy and importance of public opinion, and to the need for measuring it, this book nevertheless proves that polling has got out of hand. Morris himself says he “carried polling too far” when he insisted that the President go camping on his vacation in order to solicit the approval of swing voters. But he does not renounce the basis for that admittedly flaky decision—the identification of swing voters, to be targeted in TV ads, by “lifestyle.” His pollster, Mark Penn, had learned from business surveys that certain products can be sold best in target areas by identifying the preference of consumer groups—e.g., “Pools and Patios” for middle-class marrieds, “Caps and Gowns” for urban intellectuals. The preferences expressed by such groups can be as useful predictors of voter turnout and party loyalty as are older categories like class and religion. As a result, the targeting of political ads can be more economical and effective.
But where does it stop? The past constrictions on indiscriminate polling had to do with technology and finance. One quickly reached the margin of useful information to be gleaned, or of the expenditure that the information’s usefulness would justify. Now there is infinite room for expansion in both areas. Polls themselves yield material testable in many new polls. And their promise makes the money to be invested in ads call for more money to make the ads effective. As Morris claims he heard from Clinton: “Nothing is too much to pay for a miracle.”
The extensive polling used by business is tied fairly closely to profit. If it costs more money to get information than the ads based on that information can generate in increased sales, there is a natural cutoff point to the kind of things one wants to know about consumers. But in modern politics, everything one can learn about voters seems useful, if not immediately, then down the line. The aim is not merely to sell a product, or to elect a candidate, but to maintain political ties, agreement on issues, and support for legislative goals. Morris calls his constant polling “a chance to chat with the country.” As he says about his work during the shutdown, never before had a president used such extensive polls and ads for a legislative (as opposed to a campaign) purpose. And the same polling effort went into formulating the State of the Union Address in 1995:
To prepare for the State of the Union Address, the president had asked me to take the mother of all polls, a huge national survey that tested every aspect of the Republican offensive…. The survey was 259 questions long. It had to be divided into five parts, since no one would willingly stay on the phone for the hours it would have taken to answer every question. It was by far the longest poll I had ever done, and we followed its results throughout the year in battling over the Republican budget proposals.
Since there is no natural limit to the usefulness of such activity except the money available for doing it, polling itself has become a powerful incentive to acquire political money by all available means, so long as campaign financing has no real caps.
Television. Putting to use the information acquired from polls involves, preeminently, television ads. Capitalizing on or blunting the attitudes uncovered by the pollsters calls for extensive appeals or appeasements. Morris had a strong selling point when he joined the Clinton effort: he castigated earlier consultants for letting the Republicans use ads for legislative purposes (the “Harry and Louise” ads aimed at the Clinton health plan) without a response in kind. He proposed a quantum leap in television expenditures:
In 1992, Clinton and Bush each spent about forty million dollars on TV advertising during the primary and general elections. In 1996, the Clinton campaign and, at the president’s behest, the DNC spent upwards of eighty-five million dollars on ads—more than twice as much!
Morris fought Harold Ickes and others who thought the heavy use of “issue ads” in the primary season was wasteful. He enlisted the President’s support by involving him intimately in the creation of the ads. Bob Woodward caused something of a stir when he reported that Clinton was “heavily involved in day-to-day presentation of his campaign through television advertising.”4 Morris shows that Woodward didn’t know the half of it:
He worked over every script, watched each [trial] ad, ordered changes in every visual presentation, and decided which ads would run when and where. He was as involved as any of his media consultants were. The ads became not the slick creations of admen but the work of the president himself.
Morris was able to play on Clinton’s dislike and distrust of the press. This was a way of going over and around reports of his message, to present it unmediated to the audience he most wanted and needed for his purposes. Once again, there is no cutoff point for such access to the public. It is as useful between campaigns as during them. The only restraint is money—and Morris held that that should be no restraint at all.
Money. Morris made it clear to Clinton that if he wanted a miraculous recovery from his calamitous condition in 1994, he would need polling and advertising on an unprecedented scale. The money raised from foreign sources was a measure of the desperate search for all possible income. Democrats regularly suffer in this matter, since their constituents are, on average, far below the income levels of Republicans. The right wing denounces Democratic support from “special interests” like the teachers’ and other unions. But in 1996 corporations gave three times as much as unions did, and it was heavily skewed to Republicans (unlike the widespread contributions that occurred under Democratic congresses).5 For all his talk about campaign finance reform, Clinton had to drum up every last penny for the expensive operation Morris was running. Penn did polling. Squier did ads. Morris brought in the dough. He made demands that Clinton griped about but that he met:
Clinton complained bitterly at having to raise this much money…. “I can’t think. I can’t act. I can’t do anything but go to fund raisers and shake hands. You want me to issue executive orders; I can’t focus on a thing but the next fund-raiser. Hillary can’t, Al can’t—we’re all getting sick and crazy because of it.”
In the last days of the campaign, the monomaniacal scale of Clinton’s fund raising entered the news through the revelations about foreign cash. That may have cost Democrats the Congress. It certainly tainted Clinton’s election. Morris, who managed Clinton’s comeback with his money-driven polls and ads, also created the need for Clinton’s sale of favors like a night in the Lincoln bedroom. That is the real Dick Morris scandal. It has nothing to do with sex or personality or ideology. It has to do with the bottomless demand for cash in the technology of modern politics. Dick Morris is not only the dark side of Bill Clinton. He is the dark side of our whole political system.
John Brady, Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater (Addison Wesley, 1997), p. 98.↩
James Warren, "Clinton's 'Unpaid' Political Whiz Is Really a Gun for Hire," Chicago Tribune, August 25, 1996.↩
The DNC's use of state committees to evade spending limits on its own activities was traced by the Center for Responsive Politics. See James A. Barnes, "Party Favors," National Journal, May 11, 1996, pp. 1038-1041.↩
Bob Woodward, The Choice (Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 353.↩
Neil A. Lewis, "Corporate Gifts Aided G.O.P. in Close Races," New York Times, January 10, 1997.↩
John Brady, Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater (Addison Wesley, 1997), p. 98.↩
James Warren, “Clinton’s ‘Unpaid’ Political Whiz Is Really a Gun for Hire,” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 1996.↩
The DNC’s use of state committees to evade spending limits on its own activities was traced by the Center for Responsive Politics. See James A. Barnes, “Party Favors,” National Journal, May 11, 1996, pp. 1038-1041.↩
Bob Woodward, The Choice (Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 353.↩
Neil A. Lewis, “Corporate Gifts Aided G.O.P. in Close Races,” New York Times, January 10, 1997.↩