The Emperor's New Polls

Several fortunes are captured in this historic handshake. For the moment, let's focus in on President Clinton. He's moving through Act III of a Shakespearean drama. He believes he's sized up his Republican enemies, but in fact he's been deceived and doesn't know it. Or won't let himself know it. The enemy has infiltrated his house; their agent is pouring flattery into his ear.

Misled by disingenuous advice, the president devised a conciliatory strategy, which he premiered in June on the New Hampshire stage with Newt Gingrich. In public polls, Clinton's approval ratings eroded, but his new adviser told the president that his polling data showed that the president's popularity was at an all-time high, and that the gains were "permanent."

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It would be sad enough if the disgrace towards which the president is proceeding were merely his own. But even as various Democratic factions plan their escape routes and non mea culpas, their fate is inextricably tied to Clinton's. He's likely to go down after having stabbed his own best allies in the back.

BEHIND CLINTON'S CRISIS

The Republican victory in the 1994 election panicked the White House. The week afterward, I interviewed some White House staffers. They kept spinning, dashing in and out of meetings, reassuring me and themselves that the president would respond by standing up for what he believed in. When I finally asked one senior adviser what exactly it was that Clinton believed in, he replied, "We're meeting about that tomorrow. I'll have an answer for you by the end of the week."

You could conclude that, two years into an administration, if the team doesn't know what its leader believes in, the game is over. A more charitable view is that we live in a transitional era and have elected a protean figure to guide us through it. He takes his lead from what he believes we think. After his inauguration, Clinton continued running campaign-style nightly tracking polls and thrice-weekly focus groups. Now, in his moment of panic, still more polls were commissioned and recommissioned.

Two analyses came back. One revealed what common sense indicated, and his advisers' frantic behavior showed: The president was perceived as weak. Voters thought he lacked courage and convictions.

The alternative analysis was presented by political consultant Dick Morris, a former adviser brought in because he'd revived Clinton's fortunes before. When Arkansas voters rejected Clinton in 1980 after his first term as governor, it was Morris who resurrected him.

Morris had already seen Clinton desperate. He knew that despite Clinton's public confessions, privately the president was loath to accept blame for any failures. So, this time around, Morris crunched his own polling numbers and--voila!--came up with an analysis that Clinton's problems weren't his own fault. The president had been misserved by his team, who had encouraged him to advocate policies too far to the left. If the president shifted rightward, voters would approve.

There is some truth to Mr. Morris' presentation. Particularly on social issues, the country has turned conservative. On economic issues, though, there is widespread fear that the Republicans are tilting the economic playing field in favor of the rich. But Morris turned this analysis on its head, basically telling Clinton to seek common ground with the Republicans on economic issues and to differentiate himself on social ones. He also encouraged Clinton to turn against liberal Democrats so that he could appear strong and independent.

THE TURNING POINT

The Morris strategy had been prepared privately (largely without the input or knowledge of the White House staff) when Clinton made an off-the-cuff reply to a local New Hampshire reporter about how he might show Newt Gingrich around that state. Gingrich immediately accepted, acting as if the remark were a good faith invitation. What to do? Morris counseled that such a meeting was an opportunity to reposition the president.

Another logic was at work as well. The White House wanted to lure Gingrich into the 1996 presidential race because it felt he'd be a beatable opponent. Even if Gingrich held back, the White House believed that anything that strengthened Gingrich weakened the likeliest candidate, Dole, since the two are rivals.

(Such logic relied upon outdated information. Gingrich has won dominance in the Republican Party and Dole is essentially campaigning on the Gingrich agenda. In private Gingrich says that he and Dole are working out a post-triumph division of the spoils: Dole will rule over foreign policy, where he has experience and the speaker little interest. But Gingrich will drive the domestic agenda.)

On June 11 at the senior center picnic in Claremont, N.H., Clinton gave Gingrich everything he wanted: equivalence on a podium with the president of the United States; implicit and explicit statements that the distinction between the two parties on core economic issues (even Medicare cuts!) were honest policy differences; and a photo op broadcasting the message that Gingrich, whom the public feared as a hothead, was comfortably within the mainstream.

And what did Clinton get in return? Morris congratulated him on recapturing the middle ground while appearing above partisanship. Two days after the handshake, Clinton followed up with a nationally televised address matching (with "reasonable" differences) Republican plans for a balanced budget.

Morris crowed that the new strategy was proving remarkably successful. His polls showed that the president had stabilized in a 58 percent approval category, including a "permanent" 10 percent increase in popularity.

Yet on the very day that Clinton chatted with Gingrich in New Hampshire, the Times Mirror Center finished a survey finding that prior to the handshake, Clinton's job-approval rating had reached a high for the year. More significantly, at the moment Clinton was reaching out to embrace the Republican agenda, the poll found that "public approval of Republican policies has fallen to its lowest point since the GOP's electoral blowout of last November, and that more Americans now disapprove (45%) than approve (41%) of those policies."

Eleven days later, a Time-CNN poll gave the president a 45 percent approval rating, down seven points from May. Subsequent polls also showed mild erosion. None showed any increase, let alone a "permanent" one.

HOW RELIABLE IS DICK MORRIS?

No one in the White House seems to have ever seen Morris' raw polling data. Usually he gives summaries directly to the president, often over the phone, their prime and frequent means of communication.

Would Morris invent data? He has been the object of such allegations in the past. In his Clinton biography First in his Class, David Maraniss reports that Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial campaign manager became dubious about Morris' polls. When he billed her for his final poll, she refused to pay until he provided her with the data. He never did.

Earlier in his career, Morris and his then-partner commissioned a poll that reportedly showed that Lowell Weicker, then a liberal Republican, was "certain to lose" a Senate primary race against Prescott Bush, George's brother. The Hartford Courant derided the poll's methodology, particularly when it discovered that 51 percent of the Republicans surveyed in the supposedly statewide poll were from Fairfield County, the country club capital of Connecticut.

Morris certainly isn't above lying when business is at stake. As the country turned Republican in the '80s, so did his client list. In 1988 he said he decided to consult for pay only for Republicans. In 1990 he told the Boston Globe, "I'm becoming more Republican as I get older." He reportedly swore to Republican party officials, "I am not working for any Democrats, period." He reiterated the claim as recently as this past December, in a memo (to "My Republican Brethren") faxed to party officials.

During the time of these repeated avowals, Morris had several Democratic clients, mostly in Connecticut.

WHO IS MORRIS WORKING FOR NOW?

Alarm bells are going off among White House staffers. They've been told to stay the course, that Dick Morris knows what he's doing. Unfortunately, some senior White House aides are noticing that Trent Lott (the number two Republican in the Senate) also seems to know what Morris and Clinton are doing. Some of them think that Morris may be leaking information to Sen. Lott.

Lott, Newt Gingrich's closest congressional ally, became Morris' prime patron in the '90s. Lott not only used Morris for his own campaigns, he also told some other Republican senators that he would support their efforts only if they hired Morris as well. In 1994 Lott had Morris brief Republicans about Clinton. Morris encouraged them to keep labeling Clinton "Slick Willie" and counseled that Clinton was a conciliator who hated to veto legislation.

White House staffers aren't the only ones who think Morris is working for the other side. In a mid-June column, the right-wing writer Robert Novak called Morris a "double agent" who is advising Lott "on strategy to use against the Clinton administration."

But no conspiracy theory is necessary to explain Republican strategy. Morris has telegraphed Clinton's intention to stay close to the Republicans on economics. So Messrs. Gingrich, Dole, and Lott intend to shove unbearably conservative budgets down Clinton's throat. On "Meet the Press," Lott brushed off discussion about a budget or a Medicare fight, saying that Clinton had already conceded the major points. With a barely concealed smirk, Lott predicted, "[T]he president, in the end, will be supportive of what we're trying to do."

The Republicans don't fear congressional Democrats either, because they know that the president is being advised to split his own party. That's the main problem with Morris' antagonize-your-weakest-allies strategy (apart from its immorality). By undermining the Democratic opposition in Congress, Clinton increases the likelihood that the legislation he'll be sent will have right-wing Republicanism written all over it. If he signs most of it, he'll be seen by voters, again, as lacking courage and convictions.

TAKING A STAND

Clinton may tire of having one dominant adviser. He seeks multiple viewpoints, and alternative polling data are visible everywhere. These numbers indicate that voters are crying out for a leader who will defend their interests. After all who, except dirty meatpackers (and the congresspeople they're funding), wants to eliminate modern meat inspection? Who, except those who have given up on the American dream, wants to eliminate student loans?

Balancing the budget is a worthy goal, but not if you're simultaneously ordering more B-2 bombers (they cost $2.2 billion apiece and still don't work properly). Even the Pentagon doesn't want more.

Health insurance companies are even easier to attack. How is this industry intending to cut projected Medicare spending by $270 billion unless it's planning bait and switches on coverage, rates, and choice once Medicare is privatized? Clinton should ask aloud why the Republicans are withholding the details of Medicare reform until they can quickly force a vote.

The president could place himself between the special interests and the American people, pull out his veto pen, and promise, "You can't get to them ever again without going through me."

Clinton would have us believe that he said something similar at age 14 when he confronted the alcoholic stepfather who was hitting his mother again. Unfortunately this story, broadcast on the big screen during his nomination, omitted a crucial detail. He said those words, but he wasn't able to follow through. Several months later, during his mother's divorce proceedings, he gave a deposition that his stepfather's physical abuse was ongoing.

You have to admire a 14-year-old boy for trying to protect his family, and you can't blame him for being only partially successful. But Clinton is no longer a teenager. And while the president isn't a bad, greedy, stupid, or indifferent man, he's still afraid of confronting the powerful. Dishonesty about his own fear has led him to invite one of their serpents into his house. He wants to learn their tricks; charm and disarm them.

The president and his team believe that during the formal campaign, the public will be reminded of Clinton's considerable gifts--his intelligence, empathy, optimism. A couple of his top advisers spun out this scenario for me in detail. But a display of such gifts is also likely to remind voters of the same potential displayed four years before, and all the promises Clinton hasn't fulfilled. His opponent will, rightfully, portray Clinton as an overgrown boy.

If he could mature now, turn his half-truths into a whole one, actually put people first as he promised, the country would respond with stronger support than Clinton believes possible. To win his final re-election, Clinton has to relegate campaign posturing to its proper place. He must fire Dick Morris and become presidential now.

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