CONASON: A Battle Is Brewing Behind the Oval Office

If you've read Dick Morris' memoir, Behind the Oval Office, then you already know why Bill Clinton's second inauguration was so flat and uninspiring: Mr. Morris wasn't around to massage it for him.Actually, the speech did sound at moments like the product of a poll-driven consulting committee such as Mr. Morris describes in his book, which is most fascinating when he discusses the misunderstood uses of survey data. An overnight poll shows that the people long for unity, so the inaugural promises an end to "the politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship," garnished with the usual sonorous references to America's great history and bright future. Mr. Morris, a refugee from both parties, would approve.Despite the bipartisan homily that concludes his memoir, what Mr. Morris really shows is how Mr. Clinton rescued himself from destruction by emphasizing fundamental differences. And despite the author's droning denunciations of the "old-fashioned liberal" proclivity for big government programs, what resuscitated the President's prospects was the defense of traditional liberal ideals from right-wing barbarism. As a story, this is considerably more gripping than the author's personal soap opera or his West Wing feuds.As Mr. Morris points out, his client approached this project in a manner that aroused deep suspicion among Democratic leaders and constituencies. Behind the President's rhetoric of balancing budgets, fighting crime, upholding values and reforming welfare, however, was a strategy designed not merely to seize Republican issues but to frustrate Republican objectives. "The President suspected, and I agreed, that the Republicans were not cutting Medicare, Medicaid, education and environmental protections in order to balance the budget," Mr. Morris writes. "They wanted to balance the budget in order to cut Medicare, Medicaid, education and environmental protection."Mr. Morris didn't get this right away. He came to understand the obvious after secret meetings with his former client Trent Lott, a Republican who was then Senate majority whip. When Mr. Lott refused to support a compromise budget agreement, the President told his adviser why. "They want to end all middle-class entitlements," Mr. Clinton fumed. "Their goal is to dismantle Medicaid and Medicare and spending on Federal education and environmental enforcement."The consultant's job was exposing these nefarious aims to a public that would never consciously accept them. The polls showed that people didn't really care how many years it would take to balance the budget, so long as the President moved in that direction. The solution pushed by Mr. Morris and personally implemented by Mr. Clinton was "the first Democratic, activist, compassionate balanced budget in more than four decades." In fact, there is nothing inherently conservative about fiscal prudence. Keynesian doctrine prescribes lower deficits during the upswing of the business cycle. Mr. Morris--no economist and an admitted supporter of Presidents Reagan and Bush--quickly glosses over the enormous deficits compiled by Mr. Clinton's predecessors. (He even refers, without irony, to the "historic frugality" of the G.O.P.) The President had to clean up after Republican profligacy, and he did so largely by taxing the rich in 1993. The budget strategy was, Mr. Morris explains, only one prong of a broader offensive on Republican ideological turf. Formulating new approaches to crime, affirmative action and family issues, the President enraged conservatives by disarming them.Although this technique solved long-standing problems for the Democrats, its price was the punitive welfare reform that Mr. Clinton signed with a deservedly bad conscience. According to Mr. Morris, the President knew the welfare bill would cause "real human suffering" and surrendered because Mr. Morris warned he would lose the election if he didn't. The consultant tried to soften this betrayal by reassuring his boss that reducing welfare and crime "will usher in a 60's-like era of commitment to helping poor people," permitting even "a massive program of inner-city jobs for people getting off welfare" in Mr. Clinton's second term.So the polls told him. More than once, Mr. Morris suggests that the Americans who answered his surveys are not the stingy, callous boobs of media mythology. They are, he insists, still generous and concerned about their fellow citizens. Rather than inducing centrist boredom, Mr. Clinton could have aroused that spirit of community when he addressed the nation on Jan. 20.No matter, though. The President will discover soon enough that his adversaries' urge to destroy him and his vision of activist government is impervious to mushy bipartisan appeals. Even Dick Morris, the implacable scourge of liberalism, warns in his book's final pages that Republicans still want to repeal Social Security, Medicare and the remaining heritage of Democratic decency. In a book that provides insight as well as gossip, that is the most relevant detail.

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