AllPolitics - TIME This Week

It's All In The Timing

Forget about reasoned discourse or resonant issues. The campaign has shifted into rapid-response mode, in which every attack must be answered instantly

By Nancy Gibbs

(TIME, May 13) -- At the high table of presidential politics, primary campaigns are sumptuous nine-course affairs. Aspiring candidates put on long white aprons, line up behind tables full of flickering Sterno, and dish out issues and arguments to fatten the voters. This year the smorgasbord from Iowa to California groaned under all the offerings: flattening the tax structure, abolishing free-trade agreements, limiting the terms of lawmakers, reinventing welfare or health care or public housing or farm subsidies, spending more on defense, cutting this agency or that, restricting immigration. In this context voters could come to believe that those they elected would determine what kind of country they would live in.

But if last week is any example, this general-election campaign could be shaping up to be a far less caloric undertaking. In Clinton and Dole we have two candidates whose being is defined, whose views are shaped and whose success is measured by their ability to win votes. Clinton, who has been campaigning ceaselessly since junior high school, approaches politics as an obsessive host, something for this group, something for that set, an endless round of dim sum. Bob Dole, master of the Senate floor, is a tireless vote hound as well. When Dole says of legislation, as he always does, that he wants to "see how it looks" on the Senate floor, he isn't talking about the shape of a specific bill as much as its whip count. He believes in what emerges from the day's horse trading; his vision is the shadow cast by compromise.

These dispositions help explain why voters are now being treated to a lavish round of political pandering. The cycle goes something like this. Some aggrieved group begins to complain: gas prices are too high, beef prices too low, liability insurance too burdensome, there's a salmon surplus driving coho prices down. Clinton and Dole rush in with their offers: sell off part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserves (Clinton's offer), repeal the gas tax (Dole's offer). The moment one candidate makes a bid, his rival tops it. The immediate goal on both sides is simply to control the news cycle: there is no reasoned discourse, just strikes and counterstrikes. And he who moves faster wins.


It is no accident that Clinton is proving especially good at this. In 1988 he watched in pain as Michael Dukakis was battered without mercy by George Bush. Clinton was so upset by the Democratic nominee's failure to punch back that he flew from Little Rock to Boston to tutor Dukakis staff members on the wisdom and methods of rapid response. But no one listened until it was too late; Dukakis thought the ads about furloughed killer Willie Horton did not need to be answered simply because they were stupid and wrong, ignoring the fact that they were devastating. By the time he ran in 1992, Clinton had learned that brazen replies were key to political success. The War Room operation in Little Rock, set up after the Democratic Convention at Hillary Clinton's behest, was mostly a quick-response center, directed by strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who currently heads the same effort in the Clinton White House.

Like sailors on a destroyer, Stephanopoulos and his crew have drilled and plotted and practiced for attack so that when Dole launches a torpedo, their countermeasures are ready to go in an instant. When, three weeks ago, Dole made a speech attacking all the liberal judges Clinton had appointed, there were Democratic Party minions scattered around the hotel ballroom afterward handing out talking points on how Dole had voted to approve 95% of those judges. "It's sort of a culture for us now," says Carville. "You just can't let information lay out there. Reporters don't have time to find all of this. They have to file a story. And the first take on a story is 80% of the game."

Over the past two weeks, as Dole has tried to lay out something resembling an agenda, he has gone from saying almost nothing to assailing Clinton on his judges, his unwillingness to ban partial-birth abortions and now the gas tax. Each volley is aimed at a specific constituency: Dole officials admit openly that they are wooing Catholic voters in the Midwest and were thrilled to see Roman Catholic bishops make the abortion issue a topic several Sundays ago. They believe Clinton's judges are a salient issue with Republican women concerned about crime and values, and the gas-tax repeal is aimed at mostly male and commuting independents across the U.S. "We have a social issue teed up, a values issue rolled out, and now we're hitting on economics," says campaign manager Scott Reed.

The fight over gasoline prices is fast becoming a case study in the triumph of politics over policy. There wasn't much talk about fuel conservation, long-term energy planning, the merits of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the $30 billion that a repeal of the gas tax would add to the deficit. Instead it was thrust and parry. Dole first struck two weeks ago on a Friday, after House Speaker Newt Gingrich alerted him to the anger caused by the spike at the pump, especially in California, where the G.O.P. is increasingly enfeebled. That day Dole promptly drafted a letter to Clinton calling for the repeal of the 4.3 [cents]-per-gal. gasoline-tax increase enacted in 1993 over Republican objections; he did it again in a speech Saturday night, then refloated the idea the next day on the Sunday talk shows. By last Monday the debate had moved to the Senate floor.

This, in the world of Dole, is a lightning-fast, flawlessly coordinated operation. It is also hopelessly outdated, an analog operation in a digital world. Friday stories never get noticed. Saturday-night speeches are lost to history, and even newspapers. The world doesn't slow down for Senate debates, and by the time Dole gave the Sunday talk-show comment, the Clinton operation was way ahead of him.

Clinton's field commanders this time around are the two White House aides with the most combat medals between them. Gene Sperling and Bruce Reed are both veterans of the Clinton campaign and walking compendiums of the President's promises. Sperling, a senior economics-staff member, is in charge of budget, tax and health-care issues. Reed, a domestic-policy adviser, takes on welfare, crime and immigration. They work closely with Eric Berman, the opposition-research maestro of the Democratic National Committee, his staff of half a dozen and their massive databases, composting the life and record of Bob Dole.

Sperling, a man religiously opposed to having a social life, continues to log six 18-hour days a week, even though he has now acquired three assistants, who are already pasty-faced with fatigue and have gained the nicknames Thing One, Thing Two and Thing Three after characters in The Cat in the Hat. Reed, who much prefers to spend his time at home with his wife and two young children, has also been known to work well into the wee hours. The aides set up shop in the Ward Room, a small, private conference room next to the White House mess in the West Wing basement. There they have burrowed through back issues of Congressional Quarterly and other reference guides. But their new weapon is technology; after the G.O.P. sweep in 1994 Berman got everything he asked for--more staff, more powerful computers, Internet experts, scanners to feed vast numbers of documents into his computers so every speech, every vote, every bill can be retrieved instantly.

Sperling threw himself into the fast-response job beginning Easter weekend. He suspected that Dole might hit Clinton on taxes in time for April 15, so he started sorting through every tax increase Dole had voted for or helped pass during his 35-year career in Washington. Sperling decided that if Clinton was vulnerable on anything, it was the gas tax. That was the one tax that affected everyone, all working families, and Dole had voted against the latest gas-tax increase in 1993. At the end of the long weekend of research, Sperling wrote a three-page response in case Dole called for the repeal of the latest 4.3 [cents]-per-gal. increase. Sperling carefully calibrated the answer. In a nutshell, it was that between 1982 and 1990, including the years when Dole chaired the Senate Finance Committee, the tax more than tripled, to 14.1' per gal. Dole, a deficit hawk, voted for all the increases during those years, even though he did vote against the 1993 hike. A rapid response was thus born.

On Friday, April 26, the day Dole was drafting his letter to Clinton, Sperling worked around the clock drafting an economic-briefing book for a retreat by Democratic Senators in Delaware. He finally slouched home midafternoon for an hour's nap, then called his office to see if anything had happened. Something had. Dole had called for a gas-tax repeal, and the White House sounded air-raid sirens.

Sperling showered and changed and at 4:30 scooted back to the Old Executive Office Building, where he and fellow aide Barry Toiv called Joe Lockhart, the press secretary for the Clinton-Gore Re-Election Committee. Sperling told him, "We have everything."

Back in his office 15 minutes later, Sperling pulled out his memo of three weeks before, ran down the two flights of stairs to the basement and faxed it to Lockhart. Lockhart hit the phones and began spreading the line that Dole had finally found something to run against: his own record. Sperling meanwhile enlisted other White House aides, paging George Stephanopoulos, adviser Dick Morris, press secretary Mike McCurry and chief of staff Leon Panetta. In a conference call they decided to take a two-tiered approach to their quick response. The political attack of hypocrisy would continue to come from Lockhart. A more substantive, higher-road strike would come from Panetta, who would urge Dole to join deficit-reduction talks and discuss the tax change in the context of balanced-budget negotiations.

While calls went out to reporters all over town, Sperling ran up and down the stairs to the fax machine, sending out his memo and Panetta's statement. Drained and winded, he and his team had managed to contact all the people they wanted to by about 6:20. The response reached some reporters just as they were first hearing about the Dole proposal that sparked it. That night and the next day, many of the stories contained more about the response than about the original proposal. That is what counts as a big win.

The Dole camp is not nearly so well positioned to move fast and strike hard. While Berman has been collecting material on Dole for a year, the Dole campaign has only one researcher on staff--it fired its other one a few weeks ago--and now must rely on a Republican National Committee search operation that Dole officials say, in their most generous tones, could be much better. Much of the research on Clinton, says a top Dole official, is either inaccessible or does not exist. That doesn't help a team whose members often complain that they are not sure what the candidate will be doing or saying on any given day.

And because they begrudge nearly everything about Clinton, the Dole campaign has stubbornly refused to organize a communications war room modeled on the Little Rock wonder. After a weeks-long manhunt for a communications wizard, it looks like the job will go to a puckish novelist and an unlikely candidate: Fannie Mae communications chief John Buckley, nephew of William F. Buckley Jr. As Jack Kemp's press secretary during the 1980s, young Buckley made it his daily business to nettle Bob Dole.

Gingrich and party chief Haley Barbour are so edgy that they have talked about creating some kind of partywide structure to coordinate message, research and communications between the House, the Senate, the campaign and the party. They know the failures are costing the G.O.P. dearly. One official says top party fund raisers who produced $50,000 in the 1992 election cycle are currently ponying up as little as $5,000. Moneymen who once could produce $2 million in soft money now say they are too busy with other things. "That's troublesome," said a top party official. "That has people very scared."

It got so bad last week that Republicans weren't only looking for answers, they were looking for scapegoats. Top party officials wonder privately whether Scott Reed can rally his team during halftime; but the same officials acknowledge that Reed alone enjoys Dole's trust and that not even Reed can change Dole's ways.

There is plenty of irony in this on both sides. Even as White House aides celebrated their tactical victory in the scuffle over the gas tax, Clinton admitted he would consider repealing it. The rapid-response game is working so well for him that he can afford to concede Dole the substantive points and still come out ahead politically. Which means that even if Dole can lay out an agenda that voters might crave, it won't matter if he can't get it to the table while it's still hot.

--Reported by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Michael Duffy/Washington

TIME This Week

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