Clinton in Control
Jude Wanniski
May 13, 1996


In our April 12, 1995, letter, we first noted a major shift in President Bill Clinton’s political strategy. One year later, that shift has yielded what seems an insurmountable lead for the President in his re-election bid. We wrote that instead of taking policy initiatives, Clinton would follow the Republican lead, being careful to always remain just a little bit kinder and gentler. Here is how we put it:

The President clearly has adjusted to the lessons of his first two years and the results of November 8. Coming into office, Clinton deferred to Hillary and political strategists James Carville and Paul Begala in interpreting the mandate. This led to gays in the military, national health insurance, and class warfare on taxes and spending. Carville and Begala have been retired and the script at home calls for Hillary making the beds instead of the decisions. The White House is letting it be known that Clinton is now consulting old pal Dickie Morris for political advice. He’s a Connecticut pollster who normally works for Republicans -- including Newt’s amigo in the Senate, Majority Whip Trent Lott. Clinton’s only hopes for re-election are if the Republicans nominate a slash-and-burn ideologue like Phil Gramm, who will scare the women and children with no help from the Democrats, or that he demonstrates that a Democrat in the White House is necessary to keep congressional Republicans from overplaying their hand. This latter strategy is Clinton’s best option, which requires that he veto as little as possible, but that with each bill he signs into law, he claims that he has sanded its rough edges down. The more of these results he achieves, the more ground he will close in the polls against the GOP frontrunner, Bob Dole.

The strategy has been a spectacular success, especially considering the fact that Mr. Clinton telegraphed it in advance and continues to do so today. Where he trailed Dole in the polls of April 1995, the President is now leading by roughly 30 points. Dole enthusiasts, such as columnist William Safire of The New York Times, continue to insist that he can close the gap by 1) suddenly doing everything right while 2) Clinton suddenly does everything wrong and 3) Ross Perot decides not to run. The problem for Dole and the Republicans is that the Clinton strategy is so powerful that the President can practically announce every move in advance, knowing they have no effective counter play. A fellow who heard Dick Morris speak at a public forum recently came away astonished at how open he was in describing his shadowing strategy -- the equivalent of a football coach who tells the opponents in advance what play he is calling, or a baseball pitcher alerting the batter to which pitch is on the way.

The President is now showing he can be just as effective shadowing foreign policy as he has been on domestic issues. In order to differentiate himself from the President, Dole finds himself taking harder lines on foreign trade and national security, a posture a Republican presidential contender could get away with during the Cold War, but which now seems belligerent. Dole last week said he would support MFN for China, but wrapped that support in bellicose rhetoric about Chinese pirating of intellectual property rights. The Clinton administration is threatening trade sanctions against China, but before the deadline runs out, we can expect a diplomatic solution that makes it appear Clinton has won again. Over the weekend, Dole made a big deal about Clinton’s dragging his feet on building a Star Wars missile defense, on the grounds that North Korea poses an ICBM threat. The Clinton position is clearly more reasonable -- that North Korea is not now a missile threat and will not be in the foreseeable future, which allows our government time to polish up our Star War plans in a cost-effective way. Then we have Dole complaining that Clinton is not building B-1 bombers fast enough, a ridiculous posture considering the fact that the Pentagon thinks they are being built too fast. These are the things that contribute so heavily to the enormous “gender gap” which has opened between Dole and Clinton.

On domestic policy, Dole and the Republicans continue to retreat, squabbling among themselves and shooting the wounded as they fall back. The spectacle of Sen. Al D’Amato of New York, chairman of Senate Banking, denouncing House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s brand of fiscal conservatism, with House Majority Leader Dick Armey then firing back at D’Amato, suggests further intraparty implosion. The fact that Dole did not lift a finger in public or private to restrain D’Amato translates into permanent hostility toward Senator Dole within the GOP establishment. That is, it has practically reached the stage where a significant fraction of the Republican Party is now relishing the thought of Dole’s collapse. The process may have begun with Bill Kristol and Bill Bennett -- two friends of Newt -- urging congressional Republicans to distance themselves from Dole if they hope to win re-election. Dole, though, has allowed the bloodletting to get out of hand. The D’Amato outburst reveals the deep animosities that continue to flow from the GOP’s humiliating defeat in the budget battle.

There is no way the electorate can turn to a riven GOP for leadership in uniting the country. This is why Clinton and the surprisingly unified Democratic Party are preparing to fill the void left by the GOP in its agenda of economic growth. Just as the voters can’t trust the GOP with Congress and the White House as long as it is dominated by its austerity wing, they will not trust the Democrats with both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue unless they have a plan for economic growth. One is on the way, in the spirit of Felix Rohatyn’s April 11 essay in The Wall Street Journal. If we had any doubt, it was removed yesterday with David Broder’s column in The Washington Post. Broder joined Rohatyn in confessing error and plainly stating: “The time is right for reducing both payroll and capital gains taxes. Mr. Dole and Mr. Clinton could serve the nation by bringing this discussion into the heart of their campaigns.” Yet now that the moment has arrived when even liberal Democrats are stating a willingness to concede on capgains, the GOP is too divided to press the issue. The budget resolution it is now preparing has a gaping hole where capgains used to be. The impression is left that the GOP really does not want to complete any part of its legislative agenda for the remainder of this election year.

There are scenarios, like Safire’s in today’s Times, which we can imagine would reinvigorate Dole. We all know him too well, though. The longer the country sees him on display, the same old Dole, the harder it is for us to imagine him doing or saying anything -- no matter how inspired -- that would make a difference. After all, he has not fallen as far as he has behind Clinton because the President has been an inspirational leader, but because he himself has been so disappointing. It’s hard to see him scaling those heights again. On the other hand, there remains the small possibility that President Clinton could be emboldened by his success in shadowing the GOP and come up with a vision of his own -- a sense of purpose that goes beyond protecting widows and orphans from the excesses of Gingrich & Co. That job clearly remains open.