Masters Of The Message
Inside the high-tech machine that set Clinton and Dole polls apart
By Richard Stengel and Eric Pooley
(TIME, November 6, 1996) -- Presidential elections have most often turned on the great issues of the day: war and cold war, liberalism and conservatism, economic good times and bad. But in the post-ideological, slow-growth era of 1996 America, the election was won and lost on the Message--the ability to divine the hopes, fears and desires of voters, then craft the ideas, words and images that would best reach them. Bill Clinton built the most sensitive radar apparatus American politics has ever seen; Bob Dole looked at the same public mood but failed to read its meaning. This is the inside story of the Dole and Clinton message teams: the pollsters, strategists and admakers who made and sold their messages not only to the public but to the candidates.
The Team Gathers
May 1995. A humid weekday afternoon in Washington. Seven men were sitting in the spare, modern living room of Bob Squier's Capitol Hill town house making tense small talk, eating deli sandwiches, sipping diet sodas and herbal tea. Although the debonair media consultant was the nominal host, the meeting had been called by Dick Morris, Bill Clinton's stealth strategist. Morris had been secretly advising the President for six months and had emerged from the shadows only in April. Now Clinton had asked him to assemble the campaign's creative team. But despite Clinton's endorsement, Morris' position inside the White House remained precarious. Many of the President's top aides (especially deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, who was running the campaign) were gunning for Morris and trying to block his every move. Morris had convened the meeting in a private home, not an office; he didn't want anything to leak.
In his blunt, breathless way, Morris went around the room describing the assets of each member of the team. He called Doug Schoen, the intense and bespectacled pollster, a superb numbers man and a loyal friend. Hank Sheinkopf, a straight-talking New York consultant, was a "raw talent" who excelled at making emotional attack ads. Marius Penczner, a video producer from Nashville, Tennessee, was a terrific shooter but didn't know much about politics. Bill Knapp, Squier's lanky partner, was a top-notch writer and manager, while Tom Ochs, the firm's third partner, was a tough political operative. And Morris said of Squier, "Bob and I have had our ups and downs."
In fact, they loathed each other. They had tangled in 1986, while working opposite sides of a Florida Senate race. Squier had accused Morris of inflating his client's polling numbers, calling Morris "the Julia Child of cooked polls." Morris had been nursing a grudge ever since. Now, by way of apology, Squier said, "At least I didn't call you Chef Boyardee." But Morris didn't have to like Squier to appreciate his value. Morris and most of the others were renegade New Yorkers with few Washington ties; Squier, a consummate insider and confidant of Al Gore's, would be their consigliere. "This is the team I will present to the President," Morris told them. Squier shifted in his chair. "We could get killed in a coup at any time," Squier declared. "It's risky, but what choice do we have?"
Along with Schoen's partner, Mark Penn, these men would help Clinton resuscitate his lifeless presidency--engineering the re-election of a man who looked for all the world like a one-term wonder, a political afterthought. The Republican midterm landslide a few months before had depressed the President, and for good reason. White House polling showed that voters gave him especially low marks for "effectiveness" and "decisiveness"--two hallmarks of presidential leadership. Clinton's approval rating was in the 40s; he trailed Dole in the presidential horse race by 15 percentage points. Voters associated Clinton with three principal issues: gays in the military, the 1993 tax increase and the health-care debacle. In focus groups, says one of the President's consultants, "people didn't want to see his face or hear his voice."
To succeed in 1996, Clinton and his consultants would have to win two campaigns: the first against the President's own unpopular and liberal image, the second against his eventual opponent, Bob Dole. Only by achieving victory in the first war would they acquire the weapons to fight the second. In the end, they assembled a big-spending war machine fueled by "soft-money" donations to the Democratic National Committee and founded on a rocklike faith in opinion polls. The surveys were used not just to gauge voter attitudes but also to shape Clinton's arguments, test and refine his television commercials and recast his public image. Because swing voters liked outdoorsy vacations, for example, the First Family would take their summer break in Wyoming.
Clinton knew the campaign would be won or lost before the summer of 1996; Dole assumed that it began on Labor Day. While Clinton poll-tested every family-friendly policy, every nuance of strategy, Dole never had a strategy to test.
One Small, Unhappy Family
Dole did not so much assemble a team as begin a desultory conversation with those already around him. The Dole clan was like a dysfunctional family, a cool, taciturn group whose members spoke in shorthand and didn't probe one another's ideas or motivations. There was longtime confidant Mari Maseng Will, a tall, genteel woman who had a real feel for what voters cared about. There was Bill Lacy, a buttoned-down Marylander and trusted Dole aide who would run strategy and message. There was a veteran G.O.P. fieldman named Tom Synhorst, who had managed Dole's winning 1988 Iowa campaign. And there was fund raiser JoAnne Coe, who started with Dole in 1967.
They cared deeply about Dole but were not at all sure if Dole was serious about making the race. They believed in letting Dole be Dole. The Senator himself had been convinced just two years earlier that he was too old to run again. But with Clinton looking vulnerable, Republicans riding high and an underwhelming field of rivals, Dole thought, Well, why not?
Dole dithered for months over his decision. Not even Elizabeth Dole knew what her husband was thinking; she only knew that he was. When he finally decided to run, he didn't bother to tell his group of advisers; instead, he tossed off the news in an aside to the Associated Press. Coe learned that her longtime boss was running for President from the newspapers.
In typical Dole fashion, key decisions were made by default. When Will brought in press secretary Nelson Warfield, who had worked in Ron Lauder's unsuccessful 1989 New York City mayoral campaign, Dole met with him for all of seven minutes--and then pronounced him O.K. For campaign manager, Lacy selected Scott Reed, a cool bureaucrat who had no ties to Dole but who had run the Republican National Committee for Haley Barbour. Reed had to be persuaded that Dole would let the campaign manager actually manage the campaign. By the time Dole locked up the nomination, every member of the original family except Coe was history, replaced by professionals chosen by Reed. They shared one trait: greater loyalty to their careers than to the candidate.
A Shaky Start
The assembly of the November 5 group, as the new Clinton message team called itself, began a few months before the secret meeting at Squier's town house. In late 1994, Schoen was standing in a departure lounge at a Nashville airport, cursing his luck at missing a plane, when his beeper went off: "Call Dick Morris." Schoen dialed the familiar Connecticut number. "Doug," Morris told him, "I have this client, but I'm underground."
The client was the President. Morris asked Schoen if he was interested in doing some polling for the White House. It was an offer no pollster could refuse. Schoen was also eager to work with Morris, who had been a mentor to him. In high school Schoen had canvassed races for Morris on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Schoen and his partner, Penn, who had attended Harvard together, later distinguished themselves as New Democratic consultants and pollsters for Mayor Ed Koch of New York City, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Evan Bayh of Indiana. They had also polled for a succession of Arkansas politicians, including Clinton's rival, former Governor Jim Guy Tucker.
Morris wanted Schoen but was wary of Penn, a large and rumpled man with an absentminded brilliance and a disheveled charm. Penn, who can work wonders with a laptop so long as he hasn't left it behind in a cab, could bring a nonpolitical, outside-the-box perspective to the team. He had been polling mainly for corporate clients, helping AT&T, for example, test TV spots during its corporate war against MCI. But Morris didn't really want him. A few years before, Penn had shot down some big-think Morris ideas during a meeting with a client of his, and Morris had never forgiven or forgotten.
Schoen and Morris met privately with the President for the first time in February 1995. "I found him somewhat withdrawn," recalls Schoen. "There was a sense that the air had been taken out of him." Clinton asked for Schoen's analysis of the situation. "I remember you from our Arkansas work," Schoen told him. "Our polling then showed you as a middle-of-the-road Democrat. Now you have to get back to the center." He wasn't saying anything the President didn't know. Since November, Morris had been whispering in Clinton's ear about "riding the wave" of the G.O.P. tsunami. Clinton started paddling that way with his middle-class Bill of Rights speech.
Schoen could see that the Clinton-Morris relationship was evolving but that the President was still on guard. He wasn't completely committing. "I don't want to read about you in the press," he told Morris and Schoen. "I'm sick and tired of consultants' getting famous at my expense. Any story that comes out during the campaign undermines my candidacy." Morris was brilliant, Schoen knew, but erratic. There was an excellent chance he would flame out. So when Morris turned to Schoen for help in assembling the message team, Schoen recruited one that could survive without Morris. At the heart of it was Squier Knapp Ochs, a firm Schoen had worked with before and one that had the manpower to handle a presidential race. Clinton asked Schoen if he could trust Squier. "Absolutely," said Schoen. "I'd trust him with my family and my bottom dollar."
In the Yellow Oval Room of the White House residence, Clinton had been convening weekly strategy sessions that included members of the team. The meetings were small and secret, attended by Clinton, Morris, Gore, Schoen, Ickes, chief of staff Leon Panetta, senior adviser George Stephanopoulos and then deputy chief of staff Erskine Bowles. Schoen had persuaded a reluctant Morris to let Penn get involved, and he was beginning to attend. Penn and Schoen were disturbed to find that the President, a commanding figure, was not in control of his White House. The liberal institution was running itself. The White House staff had the power to get almost anything killed--even things Clinton wanted. The place was being run on an ad hoc, week-to-week basis. The events of the week created the message of the week, which created the poll of the week, which created the meeting of the week. There was no long-term thinking.
To the consultants, the White House Old Guard of Panetta, Ickes and Stephanopoulos seemed to have one short-term plan: to show Morris the door as quickly as possible. Panetta regarded Morris as Clinton's "flavor of the week," while Ickes predicted he would be gone within six months. Both men were valuable to Clinton: Panetta brought new discipline to the White House operation, and Ickes built a machine that scared away potential primary challengers. But to these loyal Democrats, the Morris strategy of triangulation--positioning the President above and between both parties--sounded like selling out.
Hooray For Hollywood
Bob Dole had only one move to make in 1995--a shift to the right side of the road. For the close circle around Dole, the question was not whether to flank Phil Gramm, but how soon and by how much. Dole knew the truth of Nixon's dictum: run hard to starboard in the primaries; tack back to the center for the general. The trick, Dole understood, was not getting out so far that he couldn't make it back to safety.
In early 1995, Will set about capturing the right-wing activists in Iowa and New Hampshire, all of whom were naturally suspicious of the pragmatic Kansan. Will believed the race would be about back-porch issues--not tax cuts or foreign policy but the everyday hopes and fears that Americans had for themselves and their children. If Dole could address those issues, he would not only outflank Gramm; he might even outflank Clinton.
Values had always been Will's hobbyhorse, and others on the team, like Lacy and Warfield, saw things the same way. But in 1995, when they pushed Reed and pollster Tony Fabrizio toward the values axis, the two shied away. To them, values revived the tempests of 1992 and Pat Buchanan's talk of a cultural war. They saw values talk as code for abortion, and Dole wanted to steer clear of that. But Will pushed Fabrizio to do some polling about Hollywood. She understood that parents were concerned about trash on television, violence on the screen and the music their children were listening to. When Fabrizio finally posed a Hollywood question, the response was boffo. Dole bashed Hollywood in May 1995, and the right wing cheered. He seemed to be on message, and he left Gramm in the dust.
Schoen and Morris were convinced that for Clinton to achieve credibility with the electorate, he had to come out in favor of a balanced budget. Schoen pointed out that 80% of Americans supported a balanced budget and didn't care how many years it took. As early as February, in meetings with Clinton and Panetta, Morris and Schoen had called for Clinton to propose his own plan to bring the deficit to zero. Gore and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin supported the move, but the White House liberals--Panetta, Stephanopoulos and Ickes--were vehemently opposed.
At a strategy meeting in May, Morris pushed it again, and this time, instead of the Old Guard responding, the President did. He blasted the move, saying it would enrage congressional Democrats and seem like another flip-flop. Schoen was crestfallen. But when Morris left the meeting, he was confident. Later Schoen figured out why. "I discovered that when Clinton is inclined to agree with you," he says, "he'll take a completely adversarial view."
By June, Clinton's mind was made up. "I have to do this," he told Stephanopoulos. It wasn't negotiable. On June 8, the night Captain Scott O'Grady was rescued in Bosnia, the President invited Morris and Schoen into his private study. Clinton told them he had made peace with the idea of a balanced budget. Tony Lake, the National Security Adviser, came in to inform the President that O'Grady was still in Serb airspace. Lake looked concerned that the consultants were in on classified information. "Don't worry," the President told Lake, "these guys don't leak."
The initial strike in the first campaign--Clinton's war against his liberal image--was a series of crime ads to be aired 17 months before the election. Clinton knew he needed to boost his job-approval ratings before the nation would listen to him without scoffing. He had to persuade people that what they believed about him was wrong. "The idea," as Knapp said, "was, 'This is not the guy you think you know.'" Crime was the place to start. Clinton had bucked Democratic orthodoxy on the issue by supporting the death penalty and stiff sentencing laws and because he had passed the Brady Bill, the assault-weapons ban and a crime bill. Says Schoen: "We wanted to take crime off the table."
The first ad went on the air in June, despite vociferous objection from Ickes, who controlled the campaign purse strings. He felt that a $2.4 million ad buy so long before the election was a waste of good money. But that's not the way his boss saw it. "The day the President hired me," says Schoen, "he told me the thing that most disturbed him about his first term was that the Republicans beat him on health care with $13 million in advertising." Clinton told another consultant, "If we don't spend $10 million on TV [in 1995], I could lose this thing."
The crime ads aired for a month in markets across the country, but not in media centers like New York City; the spots got little notice from the press. The consultants, who split a 15% commission on the $2.4 million advertising buy, joked that Morris liked to spread his earnings across the whole tax year. But the early TV buy served a second purpose. It consolidated Morris' power inside the White House, demonstrating that he, not Ickes, was in control of the campaign and that he would run the President right down the middle. The remaking of Clinton had begun.
Ickes took his revenge: he began a campaign of nickeling-and-diming his adversaries, refusing to authorize their requests for cellular phones and moving the high-living Morris into a cheaper hotel suite. Ickes launched a protracted effort to cut the consultants' commission, arguing them down to 7% from 15%. Clinton got tired of all the squabbling and at one point dressed Morris down. "Everybody's taking sides," Clinton yelled. "Harold's got his team, and you've got yours. Who's on my team?"
The Neuro Poll
Penn was concerned about the off-the-cuff nature of White House strategy. A longer, deeper view was essential, so in June he suggested doing a benchmark poll that would "define the keys to re-establishing the President's image." Morris, though reluctant to give Penn so large a mission, knew he was right. Penn's "neuropersonality poll" was no less than an attempt to map the psyche of the American voter. It became the blueprint for the campaign.
Using the two secret Penn and Schoen polling sites--one in Manhattan, one in Denver, where hundreds of employees were phoning day and night--Penn polled every subject under the sun. "Do you go to parties?...Which spectator sports do you prefer?...Are you happy with your current situation?" He was attempting to form a psychological profile of each major voting bloc, searching for the big defining experiences that shaped people's attitudes toward politics. What emerged surprised him. If you looked at the race by class and by age, the traditional indicators, Dole and Clinton came out about even. The great divide was marital status. Those with families preferred Dole to Clinton by 10 to 15 points. The most prominent variable, the transformative event that affected people's views of politics, was the experience of having and raising children.
Beginning in late July, Penn made a series of four neuropersonality presentations to Clinton and the White House team at the regular Wednesday-night sessions. Where Morris talked a blue streak and presented his ideas as if they came from on high, Penn was soft-spoken, professorial. In the first meeting Penn outlined the issues of greatest concern to voters. The economy, cited as the pre-eminent concern of 60% of voters in 1992, was mentioned by only 20% of his sampling. At the top of Penn's list, along with chestnuts like crime prevention and the minimum wage, were such family issues as banning tobacco advertising aimed at children, imposing order in the schools, providing for aging parents and lengthening maternity leave.
In the second and third sessions, Penn described the personality types and life-styles of voters. Clinton voters watched mtv; Dole voters preferred Larry King. Clinton people liked rap, classical and Top 40 music, watched Friends and felt unsafe; Dole people owned guns, watched Home Improvement and listened to '70s music. Clinton did well with intuitive types and emotion-based people rather than fact-based people. The problem was that swing voters, by and large, were thinkers, not feelers. To win over these skeptics, who were sick and tired of grand schemes and unfulfilled promises, Clinton would have to make a strong statistical case for his record, then roll out a parade of bite-size, easily understood policies that could remake his image step by step by step.
In the fourth and final presentation, Penn mapped out the electorate and posited two distinct groups of swing voters. Swing I voters (29%) were moderate, Democratic-leaning independents who could vote for Clinton but at the moment were not so inclined. Swing II voters (25%) were Republican-leaning independents. Swing II voters shared many of the concerns of the Swing I group on health care, crime and Medicare but took a harder line on fiscal issues and taxes, and when it came to welfare, they wanted a cutoff after two years. Says Penn: "The President had to prove his fiscal responsibility and toughness on crime and welfare before they'd give him the benefit of the doubt on anything else."
Wooing both Swing I and Swing II would require a hybrid message. "You don't win by being either tough on everything (like Dole) or soft on everything (the old Democratic cliche)," he says. "You need a synthesis." If ever there was a Zen candidate, a man who could hit two pockets on the ideological pool table at the same time by combining toughness and compassion, it was Bill Clinton.
One rainy evening, on their way to a meeting in the Yellow Oval Room, Morris, Schoen and Penn were discussing their latest polling when Penn turned to the others and said, "Values. It's about values." In his presentation to Clinton a few minutes later, Penn told him that young, socially conservative families "can be appealed to not with religious values but with secular values like protecting their children and duty to their parents." The practical impact was to define a set of issues that Clinton could use to reach people with kids: smoking, education, flextime and family leave, and on and on through what became the values parade of 1996. "The truth was, 'family values' had been defined in an incredibly narrow way by the Republicans," says Penn. "It had been boiled down to a pro-life stance on choice and a position in favor of school prayer."
After the meeting, the President called Morris with a question: Was Penn right? Should he talk about values or economics? Morris backed Penn. But Clinton realized that it wasn't values or economics; it was both--it was values wrapped in an expanding economy. On the campaign trail, he would come to embody both.
The Medicare Prescription
The Clinton team's second air attack was launched in August, when the consultants began broadcasting some very tough spots attacking the G.O.P. plan to trim the growth of Medicare. They had scrapped a set of even tougher spots, because they hadn't "mall-tested" well. In a mall test, which Penn had pioneered as a way of refining television ads for AT&T, Clinton spots would be shown to voters in kiosks set up in malls in 16 swing states. At the kiosk, a Penn and Schoen employee would ask a voter questions about his or her political affiliations and views of the President, then enter them on a computer. After viewing the spot, the voter would answer another series of questions. The whole thing took 10 minutes. Penn and Schoen distrusted focus groups (they regarded them as too small and easy to manipulate). The mall tests could yield a 200-viewer sample in a single evening, and they replicated the way most people watched ads--by themselves.
The mall-test results for the first, hardest-edged Medicare spots reinforced Penn and Schoen in their belief that the G.O.P.'s position on Medicare had to be exploited without resorting to class warfare. They were latecomers to the value of using Medicare against the Republicans, a position that Stephanopoulos and others, using surveys by D.N.C. pollster Stan Greenberg, had been pressing for from the start. Penn and Schoen tested two sentences: "The Republicans want to cut Medicare so they can pay for a $245 billion tax cut for the wealthy" (the classic class-warfare argument) and simply "The Republicans want to cut Medicare." The latter tested much better.
So in August the D.N.C. went up with Medicare ads minus the class-warfare tag line. The consultants made protecting Medicare a noble and patriotic duty and turned the Republicans into traitors to America's common values. The words in the ad were temperate, while the grainy, black-and-white images chosen by Squier and Knapp made Dole and Gingrich look like villains from a silent-picture show. They gave way to sun-dappled shots of the American President, steadfast and true. And so was born a key part of the 1996 message: attack spots that hid their harsh negative material inside a lush pro-Clinton wrapping.
To finance the massive TV buys while staying within Federal Election Commission spending limits, the consultants used Democratic Party soft money for many of the buys. A D.N.C. lawyer sat in on the creative sessions to make sure the ads were defensible as "issues advocacy." The law calls for such spots to be created independently of the campaign--yet Morris, Penn, Squier and Knapp handled all the D.N.C. spots. "If the Republicans keep the Senate," said a consultant, "they're going to subpoena us. Our only defense is that Dole did it too." The Democrats' ads blanketed the country. But Dole never responded--and never recovered from the blows.
Shut Out By The Shutdown
Bob Dole never cottoned to Newt Gingrich's contract with America but realized that his party did. The conservative activists in the "early" states just ate it up. There wasn't much point in criticizing it, even if a lot of it did not make sense to him.
So Dole resolved to make his separate peace with the Contract, telling a New Hampshire audience in June, "We want to downsize government, not dismantle it." He even tried to get some of Gingrich's agenda through the Senate but found himself stymied by Democrats at every turn. Dole knew a lot of Senate Republicans distrusted the Gingrich agenda, but he couldn't say that in public lest Gramm accuse him of being the M word--a moderate. But by the fall, Dole sensed people rejecting the Contract and its creator. He could feel it, hear it from everyday folks. This was a new problem: if people were turning against the Contract, against Gingrich, against the G.O.P., they could turn against Bob Dole too.
Dole could see that Gingrich was determined to play a very public game of chicken with the President. And while Dole thought that was batty, he was willing to let Gingrich take the fall. Through the autumn, as the Democratic ads were raining on the Republican parade, Dole marched on, his fear of a backlash growing. A government shutdown was not what he wanted, and he could see it wasn't what the people wanted either. "There are people out there who live from paycheck to paycheck," he told Sheila Burke, his longtime chief aide. At a closed-door meeting in which Gingrich laid out plans for a shutdown, Dole had heard just about enough. "Look, it doesn't make sense," he told the Speaker.
Bridging The Unbridgeable
As summer turned to fall and Clinton entered into protracted budget negotiations with Gingrich and the G.O.P. leadership, Morris kept predicting that a deal was imminent. By September, he said. Then by Halloween. Morris was back-channeling with then majority whip Trent Lott, but Lott couldn't deliver. Morris wanted a deal desperately. He thought it was essential to Clinton's re-election. He was wrong. Stephanopoulos and Gore were arguing that Clinton had to stand up to Gingrich on Medicare. Clinton agreed. It was the shrewdest move he made all year.
Penn and Schoen polled four different budget-battle "outcome models" to see which worked best for Clinton. Penn was heartened to see that voters would blame Gingrich's "train-wreck" scenario--a standoff that shut down the Federal Government--on the Republicans. Still, the President was concerned that the public ire would bruise him, as well. A few days after the first shutdown began, Clinton showed his political director, Doug Sosnik, an independent poll that indicated most Americans blamed the G.O.P., just as Penn had predicted. "Penn showed you that poll two weeks ago," the affable Sosnik reminded the President. Clinton laughed.
When Gingrich shut down the government a second time, in December, Dole drew the line. He walked onto the Senate floor and ended it without telling Gingrich or anyone else. He was being true to himself, but he acted too late. Clinton had won. He shot ahead of Dole in the polls; it was never close again. Clinton's genius was to choose a winning hand from both sets of advisers: he co-opted the balanced budget, as the consultants advised, and demagogued Medicare the way the Old Guard wanted. This created his key message: "Balancing the budget in a way that protects our values and defends Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment." So often was this mantra used that the team referred to it as simply M2E2. Clinton had arrived at a golden synthesis, bridging the traditional Democratic notion of protecting entitlements with the New Democratic position of fiscal responsibility. Of course, he did it through sleight of hand. His budget proposals didn't come to grips with spiraling Medicare costs and deferred the most painful cuts until after his second term.
Accentuating The Positive
During the budget brouhaha, Penn and Schoen became convinced that Clinton and his Administration were too downbeat about the economy. Thanks in part to Clinton's hard-won deficit-reduction package of 1993, interest rates were low and the economy was picking up. But Labor Secretary Robert Reich seemed permanently pessimistic. Ickes told the Boston Globe that the country was going through a period similar to the Great Depression. Penn became alarmed when, during a late-night interview on Air Force One, the President told reporters that he was "trying to get people out of their funk." The Clintonites, Penn and Schoen felt, were mired in their 1992 mind-set, avoiding what they called "the Bush mistake"--appearing to be out of touch by talking about economic progress when folks were hurting.
But Penn and Schoen's polls showed that consumer confidence exceeded the upbeat levels of 1985. The President's handling of the economy had a 57% approval rating. Concern about the economy had dropped off the voter radar screen. In October Penn made an "optimism presentation" at the regular Wednesday-night meeting. "I'm not suggesting we go out and say this is the best economy in history," Penn told the group. "I'm saying we have to create the possibility that things are better than some people believe." In a memo for that meeting, Penn wrote, "Failure to recognize the optimism in the electorate and to correctly revive it...could be the single biggest mistake we would make that would cost us the election." If Clinton was going to run a sunny re-election campaign a la Morning in America, Penn maintained, he had better set the table now. "The sense that the country is moving in the right direction is something that Americans have to be led to conclude," Penn said. "They won't conclude it on their own."
But the consultants had to fight a rearguard action by the White House liberals. Reich and Ickes began sending the President clips and polls that showed the economy was in the tank. After Penn gave an optimism presentation to a small group of officials, Stephanopoulos was skeptical. "This is fine," he said, "but we need a contingency plan in case the economy goes bad."
"That's what we have had," said Penn. "We've been executing it right through all the good news. What we need is a contingency plan for the economy's going well."
Making Rhetoric Reality
Morris believed that the 1996 State of the Union address, which Clinton was to deliver Jan. 23, would be a make-or-break moment, an ideal showcase for a President in transition. Clinton's performance during the budget battle had boosted his standing, making voters give the new and improved Clinton a precious second look. The speech would be Clinton's de facto declaration of his candidacy.
In December, Penn began polling a laundry list of values-based policy proposals that would become the heart of the speech and the laboratory for the Morris values offensive of the spring. To prepare the list, Penn met with a dozen White House aides and Cabinet officials, soliciting their ideas about themes and policies to include in the speech. He made a master list of more than 100 policies that were tested in a poll of 1,200 samples. And in conjunction with the speechwriting team headed by hardworking communications director Don Baer, he created 20 paragraphs, each expressing a different vision of the Clinton presidency. Penn poll-tested these competing visions and met daily with the speechwriters to refine the paragraphs he was testing.
In January, Penn presented the poll results to 20 Clinton aides crowded into Baer's office. Morris listened via speakerphone from Connecticut. The top six issues on people's minds were crime and violence; balancing the budget fairly; protecting children from smoking ads, TV violence and drugs; strengthening the family; improving education; and protecting the environment. These would become Clinton's focus. Penn rated each position in terms of the percentage of voters from each group--Clinton, Swing I, Swing II, Dole--who said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who took those positions.
One proposal, federal support of school uniforms, which was endorsed by the New Democratic policy advisers Bruce Reed and Rahm Emanuel, did not test well. Penn and Morris were reluctant to include it. (There wasn't room for ideas that didn't test well, Morris said. Polls showed that people didn't want a speech longer than 40 minutes.) But Emanuel and Reed took the matter to Clinton. The President had talked to Attorney General Janet Reno, who had recently returned from Long Beach, California, where school uniforms were being used to combat delinquency."I want it in," Clinton told them. "And here's how I'm going to say it." He scribbled down: "If it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms." On the night of the speech, that line received more applause and plaudits than any other.
"You're like a piece of wood," Morris told Penn. "I keep pushing you to the bottom of the lake, but you pop right back up."
Morris couldn't stomach Penn's new prominence. And Penn couldn't stomach Morris. From the start, the strategist had sought to repress Penn, and Penn had come to resent Morris' taking credit for his values ideas. But Morris couldn't contain Penn. Inside the White House, Penn developed a reputation as "the consultant who's not radioactive," as Stephanopoulos put it. Penn set up a jury-rigged workspace in a walk-in closet in Sosnik's West Wing basement office. This triggered Morris' paranoia, and when Penn had a one-on-one meeting with Clinton in the Oval Office a few days before the State of the Union, Morris blew a gasket. He summoned Penn and Schoen to his house in Connecticut and told Penn that Clinton was his client, the White House his show. Penn could submit or get out. Morris laid down a new law: Penn could see anyone in the White House except the President. (Later, Morris came up with an even stricter rule: Penn had to be at Morris' side at every interminable, Morris-dominated meeting.) Schoen, the peacemaker, advised his partner to accept. "You do what you're doing," he told Penn. "I'll deal with Dick."
After the State of the Union, Baer drew up a list of every idea mentioned in the speech, matching each one with a specific policy proposal and a media event to communicate it. The result was two months' worth of policies, often with two or three events a week. The campaign model, duplicated again and again, was a low-cost proposal to strengthen communities accompanied by a bully-pulpit road show featuring Good Neighbor Bill. Everything was coming up values. Morris began cherry-picking good new ideas throughout the Executive Branch, using his unmatched zeal to push them to fruition. The West Wing became a floating policy meeting that gave way to a scheduling meeting that segued into a message-development meeting. Clinton loved the values assembly line. "Where were you boys in 1994?" he said to one of the consultants in April. "Could have used y'all then."
Girding For Battle
Clinton turned beet red. "That's a lie!" he yelled at the TV monitor sitting in front of him in the Yellow Oval Room. "That's a damned lie!"
He was reacting to an ad that hit him with a wicked combination punch: his broken promise of a middle-class tax cut and his delivery of "the biggest tax increase in American history." The ad had been made not by Dole's media team but by Clinton's. "That was the last time we showed him one of those," says one of the consultants.
Beginning in January, Squier, Knapp and Sheinkopf produced the kind of attack spots they expected from Dole. Penn and Schoen would test the in-house negative ads, then help come up with better ads to rebut them. Sheinkopf, a connoisseur of campaign hardball, hatched the ugliest attacks he could think of. Penczner then used an advertising technique called animatics, video rough cuts using dummy images that could be transmitted by computer to the malls where Penn and Schoen were testing the ads. Penczner and Knapp's people created a library of B-roll images, scowling Dole/Gingrich couplings, laughing children, kindly seniors, forceful Clinton--any of which could be popped into the animatic to create a spot quickly and cheaply. Clinton's response ads were tested, refined and retested until they actually left voters feeling better about the President than they had before seeing the original Dole attack.
The Big Dog Basks In The Sun
Bruised and bloodied by his early primary defeats--and by some $25 million in negative ads run against him by the Steve Forbes campaign--Dole locked up the nomination in March. He took a week off in April to bask in the Florida sun; his campaign went on vacation for a month. Don Sipple, the campaign's chief strategist, was unable to speak to the "Big Dog," as he called him, while Dole was working on his tan. Sipple was worried, and for good reason. No ideas were percolating, no plans being made, no strategy forming. Dole had talked of assembling a group of elders to hash out themes; it never happened. The Kansan had won the nomination with a bare-bones, hard-knuckled game of attrition: run as far to the right as he had to, then outspend or outlast Gramm, Lamar Alexander, Forbes and finally Buchanan.
During the primaries, Sipple concluded that Dole's people were all Washington insiders obsessed with process. They didn't seem to know or care what the voters were interested in or worried about. They busied themselves with the calendar, with filing deadlines and debate schedules--everything but ideas. They were always running around with copy torn from the wires, worried about what the A.P. was reporting. Nobody watched TV.
Sipple at first thought speeches would help. He recommended a series of high-profile addresses on hot-button subjects to get the campaign through the money crunch of spring and summer. But nothing happened. With the campaign close to broke, dozens of staff members were laid off, so there was no material for speeches. In late April, Sipple went to Reed. "Nothing's happening," he complained. Reed told Sipple that Dole wasn't engaged yet. "He doesn't want to worry about this now," said the campaign chief.
Summer is when presidential campaigns are lost and won, and the strategy for those summer days is usually hatched in the spring. With the Olympics coming up in mid-July, the Dole campaigning had to start defining the candidate before America's attention turned to sylphlike gymnasts and gargantuan weight lifters. But it was not until May that Fabrizio launched a massive poll to find a way to frame the race, to come up with a message to run on. Penn had done Clinton's benchmark polling almost a year before.
Fabrizio distilled his new data into a 35-page eyes-only memo, "Assessing the Current Political Environment and Thematic Recommendations." The memo offered reams of information but few recommendations. Fabrizio pointed out that women are stressed and too busy, that parents worry about their kids' futures, that voters are cynical about politics. In Fabrizio's memo, the Dole team had a pale version of Penn's neuro poll. But no one in Dole's camp ever figured out how to apply its meager insights. As a rationale for Dole's candidacy, Fabrizio pointed to the economy but offered few ideas on what Dole should say about it. The economy "sits in uncharted territory," he wrote, but even voters uncertain about the future "are not predisposed to believe that taxes are the root of the problem." Tax cuts were not a silver bullet.
In June, Sipple proposed a new slogan for Dole: "Steady Dependable Leadership to Secure America's Future." It was a fine slogan--for Robert Taft, not Robert Dole. It felt older and creakier than the candidate himself. Sipple was an admaker, not a big-picture guy; he had written only a few memos, hitting on a few themes but never laying out a coherent message strategy.
Sipple was interested in the "Clinton Crunch"--the idea that higher taxes and bigger government had slowed the economy and forced people into two jobs. Many people did seem to be having a hard time making ends meet. But Fred Steeper, a seasoned pro, knew something that the less experienced Fabrizio did not. Voters always said they were having trouble making ends meet. They even said it in 1984, during the golden glow of Reagan's Morning in America. "Like farmers," Steeper said, "voters are never happy." What was significant, thought Steeper, was that voters were not blaming Clinton for their unhappiness.
To sort things out, Sipple wrote his own analysis, relying on a newspaper poll instead of Fabrizio's data, and sent it to the Dole brain trust. In the memo, Sipple argued that Dole could not get a "clear win" on the economic issue so long as the public was generally satisfied with it. Instead, the breakdown of values--voter concern with crime, drugs, welfare and immigration--should be highlighted, he said, with Dole portrayed as a kind of moral policeman. "It is now urgent," he wrote, "that we come to an agreement on a rationale for candidacy, a theme and the message." Four months before the election, Dole's chief strategist was still searching for a strategy.
Sipple didn't send the memo to Dole, but someone slipped him a copy on July 4. If the hope was that Dole would make his own declaration, it didn't happen. A few days later, on a rare dry Washington afternoon, Dole summoned Sipple to the roof of the campaign headquarters on First Street, where Dole had re-created his beloved "beach" from his Senate terrace. It was only a chair, a bucket of ice water and a phone, but it was a slice of heaven for the Big Dog. Dole would spend hours there, angling his face to the sun as he worked the phone. When Sipple arrived on the roof for a rare face-to-face moment with Dole, he saw his chance: "Senator, do you have a theory of this election?"
Dole looked down for a moment, pondered the question, then turned his face back to the light.
"Think I can win," he said. "Might be big."
The Pennsylvania Avenue War
For the Clintonites, preparation was all. When Dole limped back to Washington from the primaries and planned to display his legislative mastery from the Senate floor, Panetta, Stephanopoulos, Sosnik, legislative assistant John Hilley and Gore chief of staff Ron Klain plotted ways to box him in on issue after issue. Coordinating with Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and his consultant, John Podesta, they decided to link the minimum-wage increase, which Dole opposed, to every bill that he supported--most notably an immigration-reform package. Dole pulled the bill so minimum wage wouldn't come to a vote. He thus appeared to have a soul made of leather. But the Democratic plan worked too well. It drove Dole right out of the Senate.
That was something the Clintonites were not prepared for. When Dole announced that he would be leaving the Senate, on May 15, Morris was dumbfounded. "Dick doesn't respond well to surprises," says one of his partners. Morris hustled from the Jefferson Hotel to the White House to plot a response. In a meeting with Panetta, Stephanopoulos, press secretary Mike McCurry and others, he argued that Clinton should go before the cameras and make a statement. "It's Dole's day," McCurry said. "Let's stay out of the way."
Soon after, at a strategy session in the residence, Morris pronounced Dole's resignation their first moment of genuine peril. He stated that they had to "contain Dole's bounce" by driving up his negatives. Morris was so obsessed with this that he broke one of the campaign's cardinal rules: no personal attacks. Knocking Dole personally, after all, risked opening the character door, where Clinton was also vulnerable. Nonetheless, Morris wrote a spot that became known as "Quitter": "He told us he would lead. Then he told us he was quitting, giving up, leaving behind the gridlock he helped to create." When Morris played the ad for the President, Clinton was uncomfortable. "I don't really like 'quit,'" he said.
"We have to put the lid on this," Morris told him.
Clinton kicked the decision down to the staff. Ickes and Stephanopoulos proposed changing the word quit to resign.
"We polled 'quit,'" Morris said. "We didn't poll 'resign.'"
"There's so much riding on one word?" Stephanopoulos asked in frustration. Yes, Morris said. The ad ran unchanged, and boomeranged. The pundits lit into Clinton as a rabbit puncher who first praised Dole for his service, then thumped him with a low blow. At a Clinton speech, hecklers held up signs that said, DOLE IS NO QUITTER. After that, Clinton pounded his consultant. "It's easy for you," he told Morris. "You don't have to stand up there and take the shit." Morris pulled the spot, but he was unrepentant. The ad, he insisted, had contained Dole's bounce.
Dole's resignation was not evidence of a strategy. it was the strategy itself. Apart from taking off his tie and giving the best speech of his life, Dole had no plan. The candidate kept the campaign manager off balance, and the campaign manager did the same to everyone else. Reed wouldn't let anyone get closer to Dole than he was, yet made little out of whatever closeness he did forge with the candidate.
The campaign was like a law firm, thought new hire Mike Murphy, a shaggy, wisecracking adman who had worked for Alexander in the primaries and Dole in 1988. Everyone worked in a tidy little office, isolated from the others. To make the trains run on time, Elizabeth Dole had forced Reed to bring in Donald Rumsfeld, a Ford-era Defense Secretary with a buttoned-down style. Reed and his new favorite, John Buckley, became the campaign's twin partners, ruling on everything. Buckley, a refugee from Fannie Mae who became communications director in June, was someone who Reed boasted would be the big-think "corporate guy." Corporate was just about right, thought Murphy.
By midsummer, the message had been scattered across hundreds of little index cards. Murphy had produced the cards, handy "talking points" for aides, staff and Friends of Bob to carry around in their pockets. "The Better Man for a Better America," one card was headed. Below it were subheads: Economy, Opportunity, Quality of Life. Under each subhead were topics: Balanced Budget, Welfare, Crime. But this wasn't a message. It was a list.
On July 24, Murphy and Sipple sent a two-page confidential strategy memo to Reed titled "Victory Strategy: Post Convention to Labor Day." It read, "The Goal: Get Campaign on the Offensive. Create Momentum. Hurt Clinton." Can't argue with that. The idea was to use the time leading up to the convention "to re-establish the right/wrong and moral-crisis agenda." Dole should launch his "tax cut/growth plan" during the convention, they said, then promote it on a whistle-stop tour.
The idea had the virtue of directness: using moral issues to blame Clinton for the nation's decay, then offering the tax cut as a positive (and moral) alternative. But Reed and Buckley opposed its timing. They wanted the tax cut announced before the convention. Murphy and Sipple later surmised that Reed thought then--even if he hadn't yet persuaded Dole--that Jack Kemp would be the vice-presidential nominee. The tax cut had to come before the convention to make the choice of a pro-growth supply-sider more logical--and less craven.
Sipple foresaw a huge problem: if they released the economic plan before the convention, they would have no money for the TV spots they needed to sell it. "Clinton's gonna kill us with his ads," he warned Reed, but the campaign manager's mind was made up. The next day, Elizabeth Dole called Sipple. "How's the convention plan going?" she asked. He could tell from her voice that she was fishing.
"We don't have a plan," he said. "We don't have a message." He told her what Clinton's ad team would do to them if they released the tax plan before the convention, when they were broke. "There's a brick wall waiting for us," he said.
"Whoa," Elizabeth gasped. Then, in her most syrupy voice: "Would you mind sharing that with Bob?"
Sipple met that afternoon with Bob and Elizabeth. He repeated his view that Clinton would hammer the tax plan if it was released before the convention.
"Have you told Scott?" Dole asked.
Sipple had told him the day before.
"When?" Dole asked, amazed that Reed hadn't told him. He turned to his wife. "Wasn't Rumsfeld supposed to fix this?"
Killing Dole's Tax Plan
Schoen was convinced that taxes were the issue that lost elections for Democrats. If Dole succeeded in painting Clinton as a big-spending liberal, the race might tighten. Morris, Knapp and Sheinkopf fretted that taxes could give Dole the key to opening the "character door" by painting Clinton as a liar.
They began looking for ways to undermine the plan long before Dole announced it. Penn and Schoen tested variations on these themes: that Dole didn't know how to pay for it; that it would blow a hole in the budget and force huge cuts in valued programs; that it was less responsible than Clinton's modest, targeted cuts. They had long discussions about how best to describe the plan, as they did not want to sell it unwittingly. They honed a line that, according to their polls, sank the popularity of Dole's plan from 65% to 17%: "A risky tax scheme that will balloon the deficit and raise taxes on 9 million working families." Since Dole's plan reduced the earned-income tax credit for low-income families, the consultants could turn his tax cut into a tax increase. The slogan pushed every negative button. "It took his plan out of play," says Schoen.
San Diego Blues
At the G.O.P. convention in San Diego, Dole knew his campaign was ragged. Staff members were at war with one another. Sipple and Murphy had been cut out by Reed. On Tuesday, Aug. 13, Dole invited the admen up to his 33rd-floor suite.
"What about Kemp?" Dole said, wondering how much bounce they could get from the new running mate.
"It's good for a week," Sipple replied.
"Maybe 10 days," said Dole.
Dole asked Sipple, who had run several successful California campaigns, "Are we right to leave Jack here for 10 days?"
"He's not ready," Sipple replied. "And the pictures of the two of you together are so good, you ought to keep it going."
Dole nodded. It was a rare moment of unanimity. The very next day--one that should have been the most triumphant of Dole's candidacy--his campaign almost imploded. For weeks Dole had been irked at Buckley for briefing reporters about what the plans were: the date of a speech, the schedule for the week, the details of the economic plan. Dole hated all that. Why spill the beans? And now Buckley was telling reporters that Dole would mention abortion in his acceptance speech. It got under Dole's skin. By Thursday, he wanted Buckley's head. Reed told Dole that if Buckley went, so would he. Conscious of his image as a man who reacts to bad news by sacking his staff, Dole backed down. But he never again attended a meeting with Buckley. If Dole stopped by Reed's office and Buckley was there, he'd say, "Whupp. Have to come back later," and sidle away.
There was, miraculously, a plan for after the convention: do the economic message for four weeks, switch to crime, drugs and moral decline, then pivot back to economics to set up the first debate. Sipple and Murphy opposed this, preferring to stay on morals for the duration. But they lost, and their days were numbered.
On Aug. 15, the campaign's long-awaited $62 million in federal funds arrived. Sipple put the first postconvention ad together--14 months after the Clinton air war began. Sipple's debut was an old-fashioned, positive commercial about Dole: Midwestern childhood, war wound, man of his word. Reed approved it, and Sipple showed it to Dole. But Dole was in a lousy mood. He hated it.
"Did you test it?" Dole barked, watching it for the fourth time. Damn right I've tested it, Sipple thought. He had shown it to focus groups in four cities over two nights. But Dole was on to something; the ad had not scored well. It was too corny. The Clinton spot it was running against tested better. And the crime and drug ads Sipple was testing did better but didn't send Clinton's numbers down either.
Sipple had also put together a tax-cut spot focusing on the fact that the average voter would get an extra $1,600 from Dole's plan. Again Dole didn't like it. Sipple's tests showed that viewers didn't believe the tax cut would ever happen. Dole growled that the tax cut should be mentioned but only along with balancing the budget, streamlining regulations, lowering capital gains.
Sipple revised the ad, inserting a long list, making it even duller. He turned the master copy over to the campaign. A week later, he was gone. Sipple's work, said Buckley, "lacked edge."
21st Centurty Express
For Clinton, the economic news was all going in the right direction. As Clinton was preparing for his train trip to Chicago, Penn called Baer to report that the country's mood was improving. "Almost as many people think the country is on the right track as think it's going in the wrong direction," he said. The metaphor was staring Baer in the face: train track, right track. He proposed the slogan, "On the Right Track to the 21st Century," and Clinton repeated it at every whistle-stop along the way. And each day he said it, the "right track-wrong track" numbers inched up. Penn was right: Americans did need to be told the country was moving in the right direction.
Tipper Gore had watched Bob Dole's convention speech and been struck by Dole's elegiac hymn to a "better time." Dole's central metaphor--"Let me be a bridge to a time of tranquillity"--kept playing in her head. The only problem was that Dole was driving in the wrong direction. She told her husband about the image, and he mentioned it to Clinton, who relayed it to Morris and Penn. Other aides had been thinking about bridges too. It had a nice ring.
Penn and Schoen set about testing variations on the bridge theme. When they tested four versions of the bridge slogan, "Building a Bridge to the 21st Century" appealed to 61%, while "Building a Bridge to the Year 2000" scored 54%, and the more frank "Building a Bridge to a Second Term" rang up only 39%. "A Bridge to the 21st Century" it would be.
On the train to Chicago, Penn declared a "mood shift." It was time to usher in some more upbeat, Reaganesque Morning in America rhetoric. Even the congenitally gloomy Stephanopoulos and Ickes were seeing the sunny side of things.
The one person who seemed grim was Morris. His behavior was becoming alarming. He had been spooked by Elizabeth Dole's glittering performance and proposed that Hillary Clinton confine her convention speech to policy only--a bizarre suggestion for a First Lady who was still trying to live down her image as a backroom policy shrew. He had other odd ideas too. Penn and Schoen had tested Robin Williams, Barbra Streisand and other celebrities who might add star power to the opening-night theme of Americans who have overcome adversity. Christopher Reeve tested best. Gore's staff was handling Reeve's speech. Morris demanded that they insert a paragraph in the paralyzed actor's resolutely nonpartisan text that described the nightmare of lying in a hospital bed and hearing that Gingrich was plotting to cut Medicare. He was on some kind of manic high, thought Penn, who considered confronting Morris and relieving him of command. He was sure Morris would self-destruct.
His premonition came true on Thursday, Aug. 29, when news of Morris' liaison with a prostitute brought the strategist down. The President was delivering his acceptance speech that day; Clinton's coronation was marred by the adviser who had helped make it possible. The man who had shown Clinton the utility of family values now made the theme seem cynical.
When the story broke, Wednesday night, Schoen and Erskine Bowles told Morris he would have to resign. He could not come to terms with the chaos he had caused. "Dick, you had a good run," Schoen said. "Now go with as much dignity as you can." On Thursday morning, Sheinkopf and Squier escorted Morris and his wife from their suite at the Chicago Sheraton to a cab that whisked them to the airport before reporters knew what was going on. Even Morris haters like Stephanopoulos felt some concern for the fallen adviser. But Penn could not hide his sense of release.
At the first residence meeting after Morris' exit, Panetta walked in and sat down in Morris' chair. It was a symbolic victory for the chief of staff, who had always regarded Morris with contempt. Panetta would now lead the meetings. "We all know what Dick did," he said. "Now we're moving on." There was relief in the room--and the meeting was more businesslike, and shorter. "That was it. Boom!" Stephanopoulos recalls. "I said to myself, 'What a cold business this is.'"
Penn and Schoen began polling to gauge the fallout from the Morris debacle and discovered that there wasn't any. In fact, 37% of voters said the scandal made them more likely to vote for Clinton. The pollsters could offer no explanation of why this should be so. When Penn reported it at the meeting, Gore looked over at the couch where Penn and Schoen were sitting. "If things get tight," he said with a smile, "one of y'all's gonna have to go next."
Shortly after Morris resigned, Clinton took Penn and Schoen aside. "I want you to stay on and pick up the slack," he told them. Penn, who had moved to Washington in December 1995, confessed, "Mr. President, the last thing I want to do is get a moving van and go back to New York."
"That won't be necessary," said Clinton. "Don't worry. I know that a lot of what Dick presented on values was your work."
That weekend, Penn, Knapp and Morris had a long, unpleasant conversation about Morris' compensation. Morris argued that because so many of the campaign's ideas were his, he was entitled to "royalties"--a piece of the TV ad buy for the rest of the campaign. Penn and Knapp shot that idea down fast. Morris had already earned perhaps $2 million from the campaign up to that point. They offered him a buyout of just $30,000.
On The Offensive
In September, Sipple quit the Dole campaign after Reed told him he was bringing in another media consultant. Reed replaced him with a soft-voiced Cuban-born adman named Alex Castellanos, who immediately put up a spot attacking Clinton on the drug issue. A federal agency had just announced that teenage marijuana use had almost doubled in three years, and Castellanos' spot combined that bit of news with a 1992 mtv clip showing a grinning, callow-looking Clinton confessing that he'd inhale if he had it to do all over again. It was Dole's best spot of the year. Clinton took Penn and Schoen aside.
"Look, I'm worried about this drug attack," he said. "How do we respond?" Dole hadn't put much money behind the ad, but the consultants decided to hit back hard. They came up with a spot highlighting Clinton's drug and crime policies, including the death penalty for drug kingpins, and hitting Dole for voting against creation of the drug czar's office.
Just as he was finding his target, Dole abandoned the drug message and switched to the charge that Clinton was a "spend-and-tax liberal." The Clintonites were relieved. "With the drug spots," says Penn, "Dole was getting some traction by painting Clinton as a social liberal. The notion that he was an economic liberal was less effective because the economy is sound."
But the consultants didn't like Dole showing signs of life. It was time to kill him off. The message team unveiled its tactical nuclear weapon, an ad they called "Wrong in the Past." Using black-and-white images of Dole through the ages, the ad traced his 30-year history of votes on the "wrong" side of issues such as Medicare and education. The ad homed in on voters' perception of Dole; one poll showed that it made 66% of Americans less likely to vote for him. But the spot had no effect on the horse race. Nothing did. With the exception of Dole's resignation and the Republican Convention, two brief bounces for the challenger, the numbers had been static for nine months. Nothing either side did seemed to move them.
L Stands For Liar
Paul Manafort, a Washington lobbyist who had run the convention for Dole, picked up the flag after Sipple left the field. The picture was grim. After Labor Day, Bob Dole was worse off than when he started. By early September, according to his own poll, Dole was actually 6 points behind where he was in August. Manafort drafted a 20-page memo dated Sept. 5 titled "Dole Campaign Strategy Document," in which he wrote, "The strategy for the campaign must be finalized now...Otherwise, we will be adrift without a compass."
Manafort recommended pressing on with the tax cut, moving to crime in September and then reaching out to swing voters with the debates. But Castellanos, who had worked for Jesse Helms and Phil Gramm, had other ideas. He had always been convinced that Clinton's great weakness was not policy but character.
Castellanos crafted a series of ads called "How to Speak Liberal." But the L word he was concerned with was not so much liberal as liar. The first spot showed Clinton saying, "I will not raise taxes on the middle class to pay for these programs." Announcer: "In liberal talk, that means...I lied and raised your taxes." The ads were both serious and funny, and Castellanos wanted to run them on the eve of the first debate. Reed refused. Dole, he said, could not call the President a liar.
In frustration, Castellanos showed the spots to Fabrizio and Manafort, who loved them. "Blast away," they said. Castellanos then called Elizabeth Dole, who called Reed and told him she wanted the ads reconsidered. Reed was furious that the consultant had made an end-run around him. Reed told Manafort, "I don't think this is the right time." One ad in the series ran. The word liar was excised, and it aired just once in Hartford, Connecticut, on the night of the first debate.
Dole's Last Chance
Penn may have been an expert at interpreting figures, but he was still a novice when it came to reading his candidate. At the first big debate-preparation session, in a lovely wooden theater on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, Penn counseled Clinton to "engage, engage, engage." Stephanopoulos, however, thought Clinton should treat the debate like a press conference. When Penn saw Clinton losing his temper with a smooth George Mitchell (who was playing Dole), he realized his mistake. "Mark immediately dropped the engagement line," said Stephanopoulos. "It was very Dick-like."
Penn and Stephanopoulos became Clinton's chief trainers. Stephanopoulos worked defense (on Whitewater, Filegate, character), while Penn worked offense (sunny economic statistics, vision of the future). Penn prepared what he called "Debate on a Page," a handy one-page primer with shorthand versions of Clinton's key messages. Like a college student cramming for an exam, Clinton kept the crib sheet near him at all times.
Penn was sliding into Morris' job: molding the message, refining the ads, conferring daily with the President. Clintonites couldn't help noticing his taking over not just Morris' responsibilities but his persona as well. Gone was the shambling professor; enter the adviser who brooked no interference, who seemed as confident and quick-tempered as Morris had been. He vetoed a meeting between pollster Stan Greenberg and Clinton. And tensions were building between him and Schoen. Some thought he was excluding Schoen the way Morris had tried to exclude him.
"Where's The Outrage?"
Clinton had won the first debate handily, but the consultants were worried that unwinnable questions might dominate the second, a town-hall format in San Diego with questions from voters. The atmosphere was shifting. Dole ratcheted up his rhetoric and vowed to go after Clinton hard on character. At the first prep session, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Clinton tried hitting back, rebutting Dole's criticisms and calling him hypocritical. But everyone could see it didn't work, so Penn proposed a strategy of benign neglect: "Clinton Soars, Dole Whines." Answer attacks when you must, he told Clinton, but end each answer with a short upbeat phrase, like, "I want to build that bridge."
Clinton barely acknowledged Dole's attacks in San Diego, but when he came off the stage that night, he wasn't sure how it had gone. Penn already had the poll results and showed them to the President. "We're fine," Penn told him. Clinton smiled.
One weekend in early October, Clinton invited Penn over to the White House, and the two men hung out on Clinton's private putting green. Hillary wandered over and joined the conversation. "Shouldn't we do some testimonials to talk about the President's character?" she wondered. Penn liked the idea and suggested using emotionally charged "witnesses"--people like James Brady, the gunshot survivor whose walk across the stage at the Democratic National Convention had been one of the event's few moving moments. A spot in which Brady defended the President's character--"I say, look what he's done"--went up Oct. 17. After that, Knapp wrote an even more highly charged testimonial, one from Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly had been abducted and murdered in California. Klaas looked at the camera with burning eyes and said, "I hear people question the President's character and integrity. It's just politics." Critics described the ad as shameless. "When pundits start calling it shameless," says Knapp, "that tells me it's good." Clinton pronounced the Klaas spot even better than the Brady ad.
Dole's Glass House
When he attacked Clinton's character during the second debate, Dole made a point of saying he was talking only about matters of "public" ethics, not private behavior. On the stump, he wasn't hitting the issue of Clinton's character as hard as many Republicans wanted him to. Reed and Buckley knew why: Dole was worried that a story would break about his character. Meredith Roberts, 63, an editor for a Washington trade association, was telling reporters that she and Dole had had an affair from 1968 through 1970, when he was still married to his first wife. Roberts had been talking to TIME and the Washington Post since early August, but she did not wish to speak for publication. She said she felt "no rancor" toward Dole but wanted those who wrote about Dole to know that "he is not the great moral figure he's portraying himself to be."
For much of the fall, the story hung like a sword over Dole and his aides. To gauge the depth of the problem, Dole's general counsel, Doug Wurth, arranged a meeting with Roberts. Over cocktails, Wurth asked questions and took notes. Had Roberts kept a record of her meetings with Dole? (Yes, she had kept detailed datebooks.) Did anyone else know of their relationship? (She had told several friends at the time.) Did anyone see the two together? (Her roommate had spoken with Dole as he was leaving her apartment.) Dole and his lieutenants would neither confirm nor deny Roberts' story, but Buckley, Warfield and Will urged the editors of TIME and the Washington Post not to print it, and emphasized that Dole (unlike some of his surrogates) had not made an issue of Clinton's alleged dalliances.
Although they said the story was irrelevant, Reed and Buckley did not want to put that to a public test. Dole might be especially vulnerable because he was running as "the better man." He had told the Washington Post that he was always faithful, and he was on the record as saying such issues were of legitimate concern. After reports of adultery forced Gary Hart to drop out of the 1988 presidential race, Dole told the New York Times, "Once you declare you're a candidate, all bets are off. Everything up to that point is fair game."
By late September, the National Enquirer had learned of Roberts and offered to pay her ($50,000 by her account) for her story. She refused the money, but the Enquirer published the story anyway. Outraged at what she called "distortions" by the Enquirer, Roberts then spoke on the record to other reporters. But no major paper or TV news program ran it.
The story took some of Dole's top advisers by surprise. Bill Bennett, Dole's national co-chairman and the best-selling author of The Book of Virtues, didn't know whether the allegations were true but had no doubt they raised a legitimate issue. "People should not cheat on their wives, whether they're presidential candidates or not, Democrats or Republicans," he says. "It's wrong. Last time I checked, Jews and Christians had a Commandment about that." The story had a chilling effect on Dole, who found it difficult to separate private and public character and go hard after the latter. Explained one campaign official: "He has trouble dealing with any kind of nuanced message."
Money Changes Everything
Dole did not campaign effectively on the character issue until the last weeks before the election, when he got an assist from the media: press reports revealed that a Clinton fund raiser named John Huang had collected more than $800,000 in questionable contributions from foreign donors. Clinton had designed his fund-raising juggernaut to ensure a big win, but now public disgust with his money machine threatened to whittle down the size of his victory margin. Clinton desperately wanted to get more than 50% of the vote. As some undecided voters broke for Ross Perot, Clinton's own polls showed him hovering just below the magic number. To make matters worse, the White House was caught off guard by the Huang story. No one plotted a rapid response. No one was deputized to handle the flood of press inquiries.
In late October, Penn saw a poll finding that people thought Clinton had taken more money from foreign sources than had Dole. It wasn't true, and it represented a possible opening for Dole. Penn preached aggressive counterprogramming. He began mall-testing a devastating anti-Clinton spot made by Knapp showing a smiling Clinton among Indonesian fat cats. The tag line was, "The President says he did nothing wrong. But isn't the test of a President doing what's right?" This time, they did not make the mistake of showing it to the boss.
On Sunday, Oct. 20, Knapp and Penn cobbled together a response. The spot they made accused Dole of taking $2.6 million in foreign money and being an obstacle to reform. Early Monday morning, Clinton told Penn he wanted to respond on the stump to Dole's attacks. Penn discouraged him. "Anything we say becomes the day's lead story," he said. Penn told him about the new spot, and they decided to put it up immediately. To further blunt Dole's attack, the White House readied some Clinton remarks on campaign-finance reform. He would come out in favor of the McCain-Feingold reform bill, which he had done nothing to support during the previous session and which Dole helped kill. The late response didn't make the problem go away, but it seemed to do the job. Clinton's fund-raising tactics might end up hobbling his second term, but they wouldn't stop him from winning it.
No issue was beneath Penn's radar. One day in October, the President was going over some TV interview questions with Penn, Baer and policy adviser Gene Sperling. Nickelodeon had a simple question: What's the President's favorite fast food?
"You can't answer that!" cried Penn.
Baer agreed, and the two men made a heated case. Fast food was part of Clinton's bad old image: the burger-munching, sax-playing juvenile-in-chief. That Clinton had gradually given way to a grayer and graver President, with an optimism that seemed more deeply felt. Penn and Baer were aghast that Clinton might take a step backward. Sperling thought this message business was getting just a bit out of hand.
"Just out of curiosity, Mr. President," he said, "what is your favorite fast food?"
Clinton thought for a moment. He couldn't narrow it down. "Burritos, deep-dish pizza, chicken sandwiches," he said finally.
"No! You can't say that!" Penn howled.
"Why can't he say that?" Sperling wanted to know.
"Yeah, why can't I say that?" Clinton demanded. And then he overruled his pollster: "I'm going to say it."
The campaign moved Dole's events from large, half-empty venues to smaller sites, mostly high school and college gyms, where the crowds wouldn't seem so sparse. This was the bold advice of Dole's fourth and final message consultant, a Madison Avenue adman named Norman Cohen. Dole had started with a message of downsizing government. Now he was downsizing himself. The campaign's last idea, however, came from the candidate.
"What about an all-out push?" Dole muttered. On Oct. 28, he broached a plan to end his campaign with a four-day, round-the-clock marathon: 19 states in 96 hours. When campaign headquarters faxed Dole a tentative schedule, he scrawled "nonstop, nonstop, nonstop" across it.
Forty-two hours into the run, however, Dole was almost out of gas. After rolling through a Michigan truck stop, a Newark, New Jersey, diner and a Philadelphia nightclub, he found himself in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Saturday, free-associating at a noontime rally--from Eisenhower to the war on drugs, from flag burning to Indogate, from partial-birth abortion to Boutros Boutros-Ghali. After months in search of a coherent message, Dole had returned to the splintered themes and message fragments of the primaries. There was only one difference: in March, it was good enough to win.
Across The Bridge
Like Dole, Clinton ended the way he began in early 1996. At every stop on his 18-state final tour, he spoke of unity and "common ground," of meeting challenges together, of "opportunity, responsibility and community." He distilled his first-term accomplishments into a few impressive paragraphs--10.7 million new jobs, 4.5 million new home owners, and on and on in a giddy boast that took flight and soared clear into tomorrow: "Let us build a bridge together, wide enough and strong enough to carry all of us into the bright future that is America in the 21st century." His face was flushed and glowing. He had not slept but was not tired. If he could have, he would have stayed in the moment forever. The messenger was the Message.
--With reporting by Melissa August, Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, Michael Duffy, J.F.O. McAllister and Viveca Novak/Washington and Tamala M. Edwards with Dole
Copyright © 1996 AllPolitics All Rights Reserved