Here are some of the chapter headings
in Dick Morris's latest book: Issues over Image, Strategy over Spin, Generosity over
Self-Interest, Racism Doesn't Work.
No, really. Dick Morris, inventor of triangulation, who advised President Clinton to
alter his vacation plans on the basis of polling data, and who was forced out of politics
for sucking a call girl's toes, has now decided to reincarnate himself as David Broder.
What we had long mistaken for conniving, scheming, and duplicity, Morris assures us, was
actually his sincere effort to make the world a better place. As Morris explains it,
"If American politicians were truly pragmatic and did what was really in their own
best self-interest, our political process would be a lot more clean, positive,
nonpartisan, and issue oriented. . . . If Machiavelli were alive today, he would counsel
idealism as the most pragmatic course."
Well, that depends on how one defines "idealism." To Morris, idealism means
eschewing ideologically faithful members of one's own party to craft deals with the
opposition, adopting your opponent's most popular positions as your own, and taking care
at all times to maintain a 50-percent approval rating. ("When [the president] dips
below 50 percent," Morris asserts, "he is functionally out of office.")
Some politicians come to this particular brand of idealism more easily than others, as
Morris recognizes. Using the pseudoscientific methodology that predominates throughout the
book, he classifies elected officials into two categories. "Ideological
stalwarts" -- the first kind -- "march to the beat of their own drummers and
value consistency above compromise, purity above pragmatism." Needless to say, Morris
finds these types distasteful. The other type, however, "are more interested in
achieving something, getting reelected, and moving ahead." This is the good type of
politician, whom Morris dubs, in an unfortunate turn of phrase, "men of
affairs." Morris and Clinton are men of affairs.
Morris has an interesting definition of idealism: if this is principle, just imagine
how a cynical politician would behave.
The most credible argument for Morris-style politics is half-a-loaf pragmatism: sure,
you can stand by your beliefs in their purest form, but then you'll lose, and the policies
that result will be worse than compromise. But Morris doesn't make this argument. As one
proceeds through this small sausage of a book, it becomes horrifyingly clear that Morris
believes his kind of politics is idealism because he cannot even conceive of any purpose
for governing beyond power as an end in itself. He is not writing against the conventional
notion of idealism; rather, he is writing in complete ignorance of it.
A good deal of the book is taken up with Morris's rage at the economists and wonks
within the White House who battled with him to shape Clinton's policies. It is easy to see
why such people infuriated Morris; arguments about the merits of policy seem to baffle
him. A longstanding goal during his tenure as Clinton's advisor was to cut the tax on
capital gains: this, Morris believed, would bolster Clinton's tax-cutting credentials and
allow a deal with congressional Republicans. In the end, that's what happened -- in the
form of the 1997 budget deal -- but only after a (to Morris) annoyingly protracted
internal debate. "Liberals argued that it was important to maintain the [capital
gains] tax," he recalled in his memoir Behind the Oval Office: Getting Reelected
Against All Odds, "but I never really grasped why."
In Morris's telling of his White House tenure, he is constantly brainstorming brilliant
new policy innovations, only to be assailed with pointless objections by number-crunching
bureaucrats. The logic of Morris's proposals is supposed to be self-evident -- tax cuts
for the elderly, for instance. (If you reacted to that last one by wondering why tax cuts
for the elderly are justified or how they would work, then you're not thinking like Dick
Morris). You can easily picture some earnest Brookings-type delicately trying to explain
in slow, patient tones some of the programmatic and theoretical barriers to Morris's
latest scheme, and Morris staring back vacantly, as if he were being jabbered at in
Perhaps Morris's greatest triumph has been to win nearly universal acclaim for his
intelligence, even among those who find him morally repugnant -- "a gleeful
genius," as Time puts it. The assumption seems to be that anybody this diabolical
must also be brilliant. Read Dick Morris's books and you'll know better.
Copyright 1999, The American Prospect