Washington's Other Scandal | frontline online
navigation, see below Interview: Dick Morris

dick morris
Political strategist Dick Morris has been part of Bill Clinton's circle of political advisors since Clinton's first gubernatorial race in Arkansas in 1978. Morris is credited by many with engineering Clinton's re-election to the Arkansas governorship after a humiliating defeat at the end of his first term. Thus it is not surprising President Clinton turned to Morris after the mid-term elections of 1994, when Republicans seized control of the U.S. House and Senate and Clinton's own chances for a second presidential term seemed negligible. From the early months of 1995 until August of 1996, Morris was a principal architect of the Clinton-Gore re-election strategy.

Let's go back to the election, December 1994; the Democrats have just been soundly defeated in the congressional races.


What was Bill Clinton's mood?

He was very depressed. He was confused. He felt guilty about all the dead Democrats, and he felt responsible for them. He didn't see how he'd be able to govern with the Republican Congress. He felt that he was a bit of a lame duck President. I don't think he really believed in his capacity to come back, and he was among the walking wounded back then.

He took it hard.

Very hard....

He would just endlessly theorize why the race was lost. I increasingly came to the opinion he was doing that because he didn't want to think about how he could recover.

It was just a question of counting down the months to his execution.

You...proposed a very large, a very expensive television campaign. What was behind that?

The overwhelming majority of the money  the President raised was in no way compromising of anybody's integrity.....Tthe President was in a combative situation with the Republicans who out-raised him by 2-1.  And  if it were 3-1 or 4-1, he wouldn't be President today. You have to live in the real world. This idea of framing the controversies while they were taking place through advertising directly aimed at voters was an idea we had used extensively in Arkansas, and I proposed we do it here and that as the budget fight unfolded, we present to the voters our point of view in this budget fight so that they could get it directly from us, rather than having to go through the press.

So you proposed a series of ads?


Costing how much?

Well, we spent about $10 million between July 1, 1995, and January 1, 1996, basically focusing on the Republican's budget cuts.

What was his reaction when you said, 'I need $10 million?'

Well, his first reaction was that that's going to be very hard to raise; it's going to leave us broke. But increasingly he began to see that if he didn't advertise, he wouldn't win the budget fight and if he didn't win the budget fight, he probably couldn't even win the nomination for another term as president, much less the presidency.

In one of your memos to the President, March 2, 1995, where you're laying out the use of paid media, point number A says, "Need not to take federal funds." Why did you recommend against the President taking federal funds for his campaign?

Well, I felt that the amount of money that we were going to spend on advertising would exceed the amount you're allowed to spend if you took federal funding because if you accepted federal funds, you would accept with it a limitation on the advertising you could spend on your election.

Why didn't you think he should play by the limits?

Well, if he accepted the money, he'd have to play by the limits. If he didn't accept the money, there would be no limits, and I felt that he shouldn't accept the money and shouldn't have limits.

You did some polling on this. What did your polls tell you about the taking of public financing?

The polls said that the people didn't much care whether we took it or not. They, in fact, kind of bought the argument which I had urged we make that since we were unopposed in the Democratic primary, there was no point in taking federal funds to fund spending during the Democratic primary.

But the President wanted to accept federal funding and wanted to accept the limits, because he felt that it was terribly important that that ethical construct be maintained, and he was worried about the precedent that would be created if the President of the United States opted out of that system voluntarily.

He was worried that the public would perceive him as doing something unethical, you say?

Well, he was worried that it would set a precedent that would basically make irrelevant the campaign finance limitations that he thought should continue.

......I never knew that there was such a thing as issue-oriented advertising until Erskine Bowles told me in July of 1995 that the President was going to take public funding. I had thought that it was an either/or situation that if we took public funding, we would have limits. If we didn't, we wouldn't. I didn't understand there was another pot of money. Erskine told me --

He was the chief of staff?

No, deputy --

Deputy chief of staff.

Erskine Bowles, deputy chief of staff, called me around July 10th, July 15th and said, I think you're going to lose the fight on federal money. I think the President's going to accept federal money and accept the limits. You need to come up with a plan B. I said, well, what do you think it might be? He said, well, you know there is something called issue advocacy advertising.

I said, what's that? He said, I don't know; talk to some of the lawyers about it and see what it is. So I called them and I asked them what is issue-oriented advertising? They said, well, it's a separate pot of money that you don't need to have limits for, but you can't advocate the election of the President in them.

How did you think you'd get ads on the air?

Well, I felt and the President agreed that he would be able to raise the money. If the President worked hard at raising money, he could undoubtedly raise what he needed to raise.

I am not an expert in fundraising so I had no specific ideas about it, but my relationship with Clinton has always been such that when I indicate to him what I think we need, he usually is able to come up with the money.

Did you tell him what you would need at that meeting?


How much did you say?

We said $10 million between now and the end of the year.

What did he say?

I think he swallowed hard.

You've got the commercials on the air. You prevailed obviously; right?


You saw no conflict between the President's decision, not to [turn down] public financing and the decision to raise the money for the ads; you saw no conflict in that?

No, of course not.

I saw absolutely no conflict between the two, because they were different pots of money with different objectives.

The pot of money for the re-election campaign was for negative ads attacking your opponent; advertisements talking about Clinton's biography and his record, and all the things he'd done as President. The other pot of money, which is the issue advocacy ads, was to explain what the Medicare cuts would do to people; what the Medicaid cuts would do; what education cuts would do and that there was a way to balance the budget without incurring these harms.

Do you have any sympathy with the people who take the other position and say, that's subverting the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law, for the President to say in the discussion, I want public financing for my re-election but I know these ads are going to be helpful to me in winning the budget battle, as you acknowledge as much in your book, and so we have to find another way to raise that money.

I have no sympathy with that argument at all.

Did you get involved in raising the funds for the ads?

No. I just spent it.

You had these weekly strategy meetings. You were there; the President was usually, was he not?

Always, yes.

What happened at those meetings?

Well, we would present poll numbers and go through what the polling had found from the previous week or the previous night, and we'd talk about issues that were going to come up and how we should handle them and the kinds of things we should be saying in public over the course of the next week. He would ask for advice on specific issues that were going to come up, and we would give him polling and strategic advice at them.

Did he enjoy this?

The President is a political consultant at heart who is President of the United States because it's his job.

Would the President screen these ads at the sessions? Would he look at the copy?

Yes, the President would closely edit the ads, help write the ads. He would criticize the visuals in the ads. He was heavily involved in the advertising.

Did you know where that $40 million was coming from?


You didn't know about the coffees and the --

I knew he was working very hard at raising it, because he'd often complained about it and sometimes I'd go to fundraisers and see how long he had to stand on his feet shaking every hand he could find, but I had no idea how it was being raised.

My feeling is the overwhelming majority of the money that the President raised was in no way compromising of anybody's integrity and that the President was in a combative situation with the Republicans who out-raised him by two to one and that if it were three to one or four to one, he wouldn't be President today. You have to live in the real world.

Do you think the President would have won without the soft money contributions to the party?

The President would not have won the election if he'd lost the budget battle, and he would have lost the budget battle without the advertising. He couldn't have done the advertising without soft money.

There's no question that he's had to spend an enormous amount of time raising money and that it took him away from the duties of the presidency; it distracted him. He didn't like it. He hated every minute of it, but he felt he had to do it. He did have to do it.

And the President said, I can't think; I can't act. I can't spend time on anything and Al Gore can't and Hillary can't. We're constantly having to raise money.

I think the best argument for making the networks provide free air time is so the country can have its President back on duty, in his desk working on issues, as opposed to raising money, which is what he basically has to spend his time doing the year before an election.

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