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Strategy '96: The new Clinton runs against the old one

With incumbency a curse, it has become the fashion for politicians to run against the government they are running. But Bill Clinton, always precocious, is leaping ahead of the pack.

He is running against himself.

The president is playing to his strength. You cannot run against yourself if you have only a self. You need selves. Clinton is the perfect candidate of change, since he is forever changing. President Proteus.

Guiding Clinton's re-election campaign is an ambidextrous political mercenary named Richard Morris. The two men grew close in 1981, when Morris devised the ingenious strategy of Clinton vs. Clinton to win back the Arkansas statehouse, after the young governor was expelled by voters who found him arrogant.

As David Maraniss writes in his Clinton biography, First in His Class, Morris had Clinton make a mea culpa ad in which he renounced his own record, and recalled that his daddy never had to whip him twice for the same thing. The consultant also invented Clinton's "permanent campaign," which is a terrible responsibility.

In recent years, the 47-year-old from Connecticut has been working for Republicans. One client, Sen. Trent Lott, told reporters that last year Morris coached a gathering of Republicans on how to outmaneuver the president, reminding them that he had earned his nickname "Slick Willie." Now, the White House says, the strategist whose idol is Lee Atwater is earning $15,000 to $20,000 a month from the Clinton campaign. (The 1992 guru, James Carville, will advise teenagers this summer at a "Journalism and Politics Camp" in Virginia.)

Morris tends to land on his feet: In 1983, he helped a Democrat named Bill Allain become the governor of Mississippi even though four transvestites claimed carnal knowledge of the candidate. He is a connoisseur of the slippery.

For a time, he says, he told the president to call him "Charlie" on the phone, to hide his identity from Democrats in the room. "I just chose Charlie at random," he explains. "I never watched Charlie's Angels or anything." He has been ducking the press.

When I reached him by pager, he agreed to talk for a bit, but replied to all political questions with one word: "Pass." He was more voluble on the subject of his distinctive Fonz-like upsweep. "I don't think it's a pompadour," he says. "It's just artfully designed to cover the bald spot. It's a male-menopause haircut." Pass.

A Clinton vs. Clinton presidential race does not offer much regional diversity. But unless you are a liberal Democrat, the president's artful acrobatics will be thrilling. Just imagine the new commercial for contrition:

Exterior shot of a fluttering American flag. A soundtrack of swelling strings plays Who's Sorry Now? Interior shot of the president sitting in the Oval Office, biting his lip and sadly shaking his head. He looks up at the camera:

"My fellow Americans, it is time for a change. Remember that really liberal guy who thought that good government meant more government? He's outta here. He grew up. You can't understand how he could have let his wife and some Ivy League wonk produce the most incomprehensible government program ever devised, right? Well, neither can I.

"I'm an incrementalist now. I don't want my grandchildren to pay my bills. And neither does Mrs. Bill Clinton. That's why she gave up those boring White House policy meetings to write a book on children.

"Remember that lavish inauguration? Gosh, you would have thought this country was made of money! We can't run the government the way they run those movie studios. Do you believe that filth they put out? I'll send that Hollywood crowd back to Babylon. Bye, Barbra.

"Unlike that guy you elected, I want to balance the budget, cut back Medicare and affirmative action, and expand the death penalty. And today I will sign a Caning-for-Kids bill _ we'll start with Stephanopoulos, in the Rose Garden.

"Tired of me? I have vowed not to run for public office again after one more term. So stick with me and you'll be rid of Bill Clinton forever.

"The record speaks for itself. Dump me. I have. And then vote for me. Remember, a vote for Bill Clinton is a vote against Bill Clinton."

New York Times News Service