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Forget Morris--You Leave the Dead Behind

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP: A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

September 01, 1996|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

CHICAGO — How much damage will the Dick Morris scandal do to President Bill Clinton's reelection? It might be helpful to look back at a previous convention, where another bombshell hit, for guidance.

During the 1988 Republican convention, I was walking into the New Orleans Superdome with my then-TV-commentator-partner and now GOP National Chairman Haley Barbour. Someone stopped us to ask if we had heard that George Bush was about to announce that Dan Quayle would be his choice for vice president. We were both stunned. I must confess, shock quickly turned to happiness for me, despair for Haley. What a gift, I thought. This could change the momentum Bush had been gaining. Within a week, I was the one despairing. It was becoming clear: Quayle didn't matter.

Thursday, when I heard the Morris story as I drove to the United Center, I said to myself, ol' Haley must be smiling. But I remembered New Orleans, and my first reaction to Quayle, and decided to give this one 24 hours before venturing an opinion on its impact. By the way, this is not to suggest any direct similarity between Morris and Quayle, but the intensity of the negative reaction at both conventions was strikingly similar.

So how will the Morris story affect Clinton's reelection? How should the campaign deal with it? The first thing the Clinton campaign needed to do was to cut their losses as quickly as possible. They did that right. Morris was gone within hours.

Clinton, to his credit, recognized Morris' contribution to his campaign and still called him his friend. And contribute Morris did. No matter what other White House advisors may have thought of Morris, he did help Clinton to reposition at a time when he desperately needed it. But the Morris contribution has always been a bit overstated. Clinton has come back from the precarious political perch many times before without Morris.

Even before the prostitute story, Clinton had begun to distance himself from Morris. It was subtle but sure. White House officials who were ordered to lay off criticism of Morris months ago began to feel free to leak on him again--even before the Time magazine cover that showed Morris perched on Clinton's shoulder, talking in the president's ear.

Morris' strategy worked but his job was done. He helped Clinton become the first sitting president in 40 years to avoid a primary challenge. He helped Clinton find his sea legs--and find them he did. But, in the last two weeks, the reclusive Morris began to take a higher and higher public profile, culminating in the Time cover. Clinton was said to be furious that Morris was taking credit for the Comeback Kid's latest miracle--so he became expendable.

Those who suggest that Morris' leaving will take away the only moderate voice in Clinton's inner circle miss the point. Clinton is his own best moderate voice. Listen to Clinton's acceptance speech Thursday: confident, solid, moderate. He has reclaimed his own voice. The New Democrat is back and will likely not be derailed. Clinton learned the lesson of turning left early in his administration and saw the damage it caused. He won't go back.

As the Bush campaign did with Quayle in '88, Clinton should do with Morris. Ignore him, even knowing that the Republicans, so desperate for a way back into the campaign, will try to keep Morris alive. Don't take the bait. They will look desperate. By next week, the public will have forgotten Morris--if, in fact, they ever remembered him.

One other suggestion: Before Morris' fall, he had assembled a competent group of campaign veterans. Leave them in place. To remove Morris' allies would only keep the story going. Anyone in the White House or campaign who feels it's payback time and continues to dump on Morris should be dumped on the street.

If history has taught us anything it's that only presidential candidates matter. Vice presidents don't. First ladies don't. And, certainly, political consultants don't. Morris will be history soon enough. The only way he won't be is if the Clinton campaign dwells on him. It's the law of the political jungle, as harsh as it may seem--leave your dead behind and continue on the hunt.

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