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DUCK SOUP: M-gate Redux

Just when I thought every angle had been covered, ad nauseum, I stumbled on a brand new facet of The Story. My instruction came from the notebook of that wascally wabbit Dick Morris, one time advisor to President Clinton, who wrote some very prescient memos back in 1995 and 1996.Then, as more recently, Clinton's personal morality was under assault and Morris offered this insight: "When Republicans are reduced to only social message, they lose ..." The May 4, 1995 memo quoted in the current issue of Mother Jones continued, "keep attention focused on social issues."Later, just before the 1996 Republican National Convention, Morris' research led him to suggest that making Clinton's character the central issue would prove disastrous to Republicans. It seems that voters don't trust those who seek to impose morality on others, even if they agree with the moral position being advanced. They hate the sin but express enormous tolerance toward the sinner.We are a pragmatic people. If the mechanic under the hood keeps the car running smoothly and the price is right, we don't give a tinker's dam who she sleeps with or what substances she ingests at private parties.Do you suppose that we have misjudged Mr. Clinton? Is it just possible that instead of being a sex-crazed fool he is almost unfathomably brilliant?Were the shadings of truth, the partially recovered gifts followed by more giving, the easily traced phone calls, the not-so-secret trysts, the denials, the admissions and all the rest, the flounderings of a bounder caught with his pants down ... or the carefully positioned bait which lured Republicans into the worst possible position as the 2000 elections draw near?Is the GOP a bastion of righteousness or a pack of suckers? (Or both?)Such a scenario would easily rank as one of the boldest political moves of our era, betting the House (and the Senate and the Presidency) on a gambit that could have gone down in flames. It would also go a long way toward explaining Hillary Rodham Clinton's Cheshire smile. An astute student of power politics, Mrs. Clinton could only approve of her hubby's tactical shrewdness, even if the modus was distasteful. Politics and bedfellows go back a long way. If the current backlash mood of the electorate lingers Mrs. Clinton may well find herself part of a Democratic majority in the Senate ere long.Having grown up in an aggressively Republican household I remember clearly the moralistic fervor (tinged with more than a hint of jealousy) directed at John Kennedy's rumored sexual escapades. In the Johnson/Goldwater race the putative homosexuality of a Johnson aide churned through GOP ranks and appeared on bumper stickers. Sex has long been a problem for Republicans and Dick Morris is right: when they get on their high horse about their opponents' private lives the voters politely beg to disagree.Ronald Reagan pushed preachiness aside and wowed the folks with feel-good politics and lies. No surprise that he was enormously popular -- a song and dance man ready to give the people what they wanted. But the lesson didn't stick and after one round on Reagan's coattails, the dourly moralistic Bush fell to "Feel your pain" Clinton, with women in his past and trailing streams of scandalous glory.The presidential wannabes are lining up this season, announcing candidacies and forming exploratory committees to test the water. Will the GOP nominate one of the self-anointed champions of morality who have harrumphed their way through the tedious months just past? (Death before dishonor has a very noble ring.) Or is it possible they will loosen up, shake off the smarminess and get halfway real?Reading from Dick Morris' text I advance my prediction: If Republicans follow the Religious Right and try to claim the moral high ground in 2000, the much vaunted conservative revolution will be tossed out on its ear. Then, with the sluggards disabled for the nonce, the Democrat majority will have a reasonable shot at desperately needed environmental protection and meaningful campaign finance reform. We just might build a sustainable bridge to the 21st century instead of endlessly repairing the creaky trestle from the Victorian 19th.A Clinton legacy indeed.

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