The Year Of Jumping Ship

For man of the year, I nominate Dick Morris.Morris, you'll recall, was President Clinton's behind-the-scenes adviser who charted the president's lurch to the right. Relying on all the latest polling data, Morris helped Clinton pull off a slick makeover that salvaged the election.A man who has also found it possible to advise the likes of Jesse Helms, Morris himself is little more than a political prostitute. So perhaps it was no surprise when he was caught with a real one, a scandal that blew up the day of Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention.Then, having committed one infidelity, Morris perpetrated another: he revealed he'd secretly been writing a book about working for the president.It's all in a year's work for Dick Morris: help your boss betray his roots, convincing the world once and for all that he believes in nothing but winning elections; spoil his biggest speech of the campaign; and then further embarrass him by making a buck off the whole thing when you're done.And that's why Morris deserves man-of-the-year honors: he represents the spirit of '96 in national politics. Ideas and allegiances were negotiable. When the going got tough, the tough consulted the polls. From Bill Clinton to Bob Dole to the Congressional Republicans, politicians ordered new identities -- overnight delivery -- from their pollsters' catalogues. It was the Year of Jumping Ship."This is the price we pay for the kind of instant public reaction that everybody gets from the daily polls that have now become a staple of daily life," says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. "There have always been polls, but they've never been quite as sophisticated. . . . A person is constantly aware of how they're standing. We saw in 1996 the full fruition of that."Of course, this was an election year, a time that is traditionally ripe for desperate plays to the public's favor. But in an era infested with political consultants and omniscient polling data, the past 12 months appear to have been a time of special shamelessness.It's also true these same forces have bolstered the bipartisan spirit, which is not such a bad thing. Finding consensus to get things done is what governing is all about. Clinton's appointment of a Republican, former Maine senator William Cohen, to be secretary of defense, for instance, should bring a needed boost of credibility on military affairs. And our leaders have been inching toward a more responsible discussion of the nation's fiscal situation, and how much debt the next generation will inherit. But some principles are important enough that they can't be airbrushed away.Once upon a time, a leader could regain public favor by resolutely holding his ground. Making his comeback against a hostile Republican Congress, Clinton was often compared to Harry Truman, another Democratic incumbent who came back in 1948. But the difference, according to Yale University political scientist David Mayhew, is that Truman "just dug in," while Clinton -- though he used Newt Gingrich and other radical Republicans as an effective foil -- subtly moved toward their political turf.Unfortunately, this is the kind of compromise we've been rewarding lately -- the compromising of one's self. Two of the year's biggest switcheroos -- Bill Clinton's leap from universal health-care liberal to full-fledged Republican, and the House Republicans' transformation from Newtnik zealots to seeming moderates -- resulted in electoral success. Dole's late-game conversion to supply-sideism probably failed only because Clinton performed a more convincing makeover.Our leaders are not leading; they are following. And that leaves unaddressed some of the hardest decisions of governing. The looming budget disaster of runaway entitlements, such as Medicare and Social Security, doesn't show up as a major concern in polls and so remains largely undiscussed, like a crazy aunt locked up in the national attic. The man on the street isn't agitating for tighter control of stray nuclear weapons abroad, or for job training at home.The voters, meanwhile, are learning that which candidates you vote for matters less when their positions are likely to change drastically anyway. The 49 percent voter turnout on November 5 wasn't "a national disgrace," as Dan Rather called it. We were simply following our leaders; everyone's bailing out.The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist. -- The Usual SuspectsNineteen-ninety-six dawned on a shifting political landscape. In January, Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress were locked in a battle that would define the course of the entire year.Bill Clinton was just recovering from the low point of his presidency. His early liberal course, including a failed attempt at massive health-care reform, provoked a backlash that handed Congress to the Republicans in 1994. Clinton summoned Dick Morris, who enrolled him in the political equivalent of the federal witness-protection program. In 1995 he initiated Morris's plan of "triangulation" by seeking to establish a new identity in the middle ground between the radical Republicans in Congress and the liberal Democratic establishment.The Republicans, especially Newt Gingrich and his devoted cadre of House freshmen, were confronting Clinton with a bold and defiant conservative agenda, the Contract with America. By fall of 1995 their sweeping balanced-budget proposal, which would have trimmed Medicare and Medicaid, and cut taxes by $245 billion, provoked a standoff with the White House.Clinton used the showdown to turn the tables on the GOP. He had, stunningly, agreed with Republicans that the budget should be balanced in seven years, but now criticized their plan as an evil ploy to slash Medicare while giving a tax break to the rich. The polls began to shift. It wouldn't be until late 1996, with the presidential campaign in full swing, that Clinton would arrive at a distinct crossroads and choose the rightward path.By the spring of 1996, the repackaging was taking shape. It was dawning on the Republicans that they'd been made to look like cruel extremists in the budget shutdown. Clinton's attacks on their cuts in Medicare (which were exaggerated) and the environment (which weren't) were doing damage, and his resistance had prevented Republicans from putting any positive achievements under their belt.As Democrats like Ted Kennedy -- who didn't flinch from the left when times were hard -- seized the moment, panicky Republican moderates began to mutiny. GOP leaders (Gingrich and Dick Armey, for example) faced humiliation as Democratic measures, such as a $5.15 minimum wage and portable health care, threatened to pass over their opposition. The GOP troops were fragging their officers. Both bills passed, which would have been an unthinkable occurrence just six months before.The Republican Party soon co-opted this mutiny, and scrambled to pass more popular legislation in time for the November election. Newt Gingrich, who just a year earlier was still waxing sanctimonious about his crusade to save Western civilization, was essentially bound and gagged by the party.As the election drew nearer, the House Republicans stood by their Contract with the approximate resolve of those desperate Iraqi soldiers who begged to be captured during the Gulf War. Gone were the comparisons of the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo. Instead, the party's national convention called for moderation and diversity, conditions that had been totally absent from the GOP Congress. And Gingrich, amid a line-up of moderate women, was reduced to a brief speech on the merits of beach volleyball. It was like trading in a Marilyn Manson T-shirt for a Hootie baseball cap.One Republican, freshman Representative Daniel Frisa (R-New York), just said screw it altogether. Trailing a neophyte challenger, Frisa dropped out of sight in the days before the election and has not been seen since.There's nothing inherently wrong with the Republicans' flight from radicalism. Trouble is, there's little evidence to suggest they believe in this new moderation, as opposed to simply finding it convenient.In the best tradition of Keyser Soze, the Devil figure in The Usual Suspects, they had us fooled at most every turn. As the New Republic's ever vigilant John Judis has pointed out, goodies for insurance companies and investment banks adorned the minimum-wage increase like Christmas ornaments, while the Kennedy-Kassebaum health-insurance bill was punctured by industry-friendly loopholes. That supposedly inclusive convention was staged at the same time the party was passing a mean-spirited immigration law that cut off benefits to legal immigrants. Just as the villainous Soze (a/k/a Verbal Kint) used an elaborate web of lies to stroll from the police station a free man, the Republicans' myth of moderation won them two more years of control in Congress.Busily repackaging himself, Bill Clinton kept a cool distance from the Democrats' spring comeback; it no longer served him to be linked with his party. Indeed, as 1996 wore on, many outraged liberals began to accuse the president of moving from triangulation to betrayal.To many of them, Clinton's true colors were revealed by welfare. Previously, Clinton had vetoed two welfare bills Congress had sent him. But with Morris nudging him to the right, Clinton crossed his fingers and signed a law that kicked people off the dole without addressing most of the reasons they were dependent in the first place. (True, Clinton had vowed to reform welfare in 1992. And he may have felt that a vetoed bill would be followed by a more harmful version. Nevertheless, he became a Judas to old liberal allies who had been adamant that he not sign, and two of his highest-ranking welfare officials soon resigned in protest.)Clinton advanced rightward on a host of other issues. He accepted nefarious Republican legal reforms, such as a limit on the appeals of death-row inmates. He denounced the Defense of Marriage Act, a bill produced by the most ignorant and prejudiced elements of the Republican Party, as "gay-baiting." And then he signed it. During the fall campaign, he scattered irresponsible tax-break candies, and did the macho thing by lobbing a few more Tomahawk missiles into Iraq.In general, the more Clinton shifted into campaign mode, the less he showed any glimmer of his former liberalism. His impassioned rhetoric from the 1992 campaign about investing in education and job training was replaced by flirtations with the soccer moms over school uniforms, curfews, personal responsibility. Gone were the bold ambitions to cover the uninsured. In 1996, Clinton campaigned on symbolic, almost weightless ideas tailored to suburban moderates, not to the nation's welfare. His campaign was premised on a rhetorical "bridge" signifying nothing but the changing calendar.In his futile bid for the presidency, Bob Dole may have made an even greater political and personal leap than Clinton did.For one thing, Dole took a more literal approach: he physically relocated himself. In the spring of 1996, after staggering out of the primaries, Dole somehow imagined he could run for president and still be Senate majority leader. The Democrats, of course, would have none of that, practicing procedural voodoo against Dole's every legislative move. Shocking the Meet the Press crowd, a frustrated Dole gave up the Senate to campaign full-time, now "a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man."Where Clinton ventured slowly on his ideological voyage, Dole was like Clark Kent in a phone booth. Not only was Dole trying to cast off the insider baggage of his 30-plus years in Congress, he was abandoning the record he'd established there. For years Dole had been one of Congress's leading opponents of deficits, frequently invoking bucolic images of his Kansas hometown -- and the ethic of thrift he supposedly learned there. Dole even resisted the tax-slashing fever of the Reagan years, and famously enjoys a joke about a busload of supply-siders plummeting off a cliff.And yet, with his campaign becoming a political Ishtar, Dole unveiled a $550 billion tax cut in August that vandalized those very principles of thrift and prudence he'd always represented. This "economic plan" was deeply irresponsible, a craven bid to buy votes through the promise of lower taxes that posed a potentially devastating threat to the federal budget. Dole tried to salvage his reputation by vowing to cut taxes and balance the budget. It's remarkable he was able to do so with a straight face, because, even by Washington standards, his plan was a gimmick-laden fantasy.There were smaller reversals as well. Last summer Dole put politics ahead of international security, reversing his position on an important international chemical-weapons ban to derail it in the Senate and keep it off Clinton's list of achievements. Perhaps most implausibly, the caustic and dark-humored Dole even proclaimed himself "the most optimistic man in America." The only proof: he refused to drop out of the race.This anything-goes atmosphere must have encouraged his typically principled running mate, Jack Kemp, to get in on the act. Dole had chosen Kemp, an emissary from the weird fathers of supply-side economics into sane society, to validate his new position on taxes. During his career in Congress and the Bush Administration, Kemp established himself as a rare politician, a white Republican who understands and cares about minorities and inner-city problems, even if doing so has forced him to disagree with some members of his party. Almost immediately after joining Dole's ticket, however, Kemp simply flushed his long-standing support for affirmative action.So convoluted did the logic of allegiance become in 1996 that a desperate Dole even tried to win Ross Perot's endorsement after blocking the Texan from the presidential debates. Perot, however, would have none of it. He'd put too much effort into screwing former Colorado governor Dick Lamm to make his own candidacy seem legitimate. Lamm had bought the idea that the nomination of Perot's Reform Party was actually up for grabs, and declared himself a candidate. Of course, Perot had no intention of letting anybody upstage him, and Lamm was crushed in a primary vote that made the Serbian electoral system look progressive. Meanwhile, Perot's 1992 running mate, the infamous Vice Rear Admiral James T. Stockdale, who knew what humiliation felt like, thanked Perot by endorsing Dole. (Ralph Nader provided another only-in-'96 non-endorsement, refusing to back the platform of the Green Party, on whose ticket he was running.)The culture of expedience even permeated Dole's campaign ship, from which the rats were jumping by late summer. As Dole's electoral doom crystallized, aides sniped and critiqued the candidate to the press. Those Republican governors, such as Wisconsin's Tommy Thompson and Ohio's George Voinovich, so sycophantic back when they were hoping to become Dole's running mate, openly doubted the campaign. New York senator Al D'Amato, a national co-chair of the campaign, growing antsy over his own slipping polls, publicly questioned the economic plan, thus providing Democrats with a much-invoked, "Even Republican Senator Al D'Amato says. . . ." The cabal of wizened senators who had stumped around with Dole in happier days began to have schedule conflicts when Dole appeared in their area. Dole's communications director actually used the phrase "the first rat," to describe GOP pundit Bill Kristol after Kristol had written off the campaign.And just for good measure, it turned out that Dole, Mr. My Word Is My Bond, had twice cheated on his wife in the '70s.The weeks since the election have been filled with the reverberations of all this furious activity. Days after the Republicans' hold on the House was reconfirmed, some of Newt Gingrich's once faithful troops began to suggest that he step down as House Speaker, even as Gingrich was introducing the nation to the New Newt, nonthreatening to the point of Captain Kangaroo-ness.The stoics continue to be looked upon as oddities. So resolute is Bob Dornan that he continues to rant in denial over the election results that ushered him out of Congress. Clinton partisan James Carville was condemned by editorialists for threatening to run an ad campaign that exposed the partisan background of Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel.For his part, Clinton has only continued the kind of zero-gravity rhetoric that defined his campaign -- he'd like to see more children adopted, for instance -- although there have been hints of stronger rightward tendencies. The old Clinton vehemently denounced the foolish Republican balanced-budget amendment in 1995; but as it becomes clear there may be enough votes to pass it in 1997, Clinton's principled opposition is evaporating.More significantly, he's been chasing the liberals out of his administration. For instance, Clinton tapped the pragmatic moderate Erskine Bowles to be the new chief of staff instead of his old buddy and deputy chief of staff, Harold Ickes. With George Stephanopoulous exiting, Ickes would have been the only true liberal remaining in Clinton's orbit who is not married to him. Ickes was such a dear friend that Clinton let a newspaper article tell him that he was being passed over for the job. (Soon after, Ickes announced he was leaving the White House.)Clinton also embarrassed his Attorney General, Janet Reno, who has taken major flak for him on Waco and other matters, by making her wait until weeks after the election to let her know that she can keep her job.Still, though Clinton has raised serious questions about where his true beliefs lie, his strategy has fended off worse outcomes. His move to the right put the House Republicans on the defensive, and prevented a Dole presidency.The problem now, as Clinton continues to stand for nothing, is that Gingrich and conservative Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott set the political agenda.That agenda has begun to reveal itself -- and guess what? The old Republicans are re-emerging, pushing for the drastic balanced-budget amendment and a ban on "partial-birth abortion," and discounting the possibility of "fixing" the welfare bill.Perhaps in response, as some liberals hope, the old Bill Clinton will reappear. Then it would be back to early 1995 again. In that case, maybe Dick Morris can make a comeback of his own, and we'll have to watch the whole damn thing over again.

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