The Magazine


Mar 10, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 25 • By BRIT HUME
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IN EARLY 1996, PRESIDENT CLINTON'S top political advisers had a problem. Under Dick Morris's guidance, Clinton had made an extraordinary comeback from the mid-term debacle of 1994. While the Republican presidential candidates were beating (and spending) each other senseless in the primaries, Clinton was coasting to renomination without challenge, and his poll ratings had recovered and were still rising. He was well on his way to raising all the money he could legally spend in the pre-convention period. To outward appearances, things could hardly have been better.

The problem for Clinton's aides was they had an increasingly unhappy candidate on their hands. The Morris strategy was built around a massive television ad blitz that was costing a fortune. It had started in the summer of 1995 with commercials attacking the Republican positions on crime and the budget, and Morris planned to keep it going until the end of the campaign. The ads were blanketing much of the country with Washington and New York deliberately blacked out to keep the national media from figuring out what Morris was up to.

Before it was over, the ad campaign would cost about $ 85 million, more than twice the TV budget of the 1992 Clinton campaign. As a result, the president was having to devote night after night to fund-raising and was continually on the road in pursuit of cash. For all his gregariousness, Clinton hated these fund-raisers. They were all the same: He arrived, stood in a receiving line having his picture taken with the donors, made a speech, and left. Usually, they were the last events at the end of long days of campaigning. Often the fund-raising, not the campaigning, was the real reason for the trip. "You've got me running all around the country and all I do is run in and out of hotel rooms," one aide reports the president complained. " I'm not having any contact with any of these people. All I'm doing is sitting there shaking hands."

In his book Behind the Oval Office, Morris quotes an even more bitter Clinton lament: "You don't know, you don't have any remote idea how hard I have to work. . . . I can't think. I can't act. I can't do anything but go to fund-raisers and shake hands. You want me to issue executive orders; I can't focus on a thing except the next fund-raiser." But Morris was not about to accommodate his weary client. In his view, the ad campaign was indispensable. Indeed, he now argues that the money that paid for it, in effect, bought Clinton reelection. "If it were not for the fund-raising that they did," he told me, "we would not have won the election, and Dole and Gingrich would be running the country."

Every president, no matter how unpopular with the wider public, is a fund- raising superstar in his own party. The only limits to what a president can raise are those imposed by law and his own endurance. The Clinton team had worried earlier about the monetary limits. Morris had even suggested at one point that the Clinton campaign refuse federal matching money and thereby avoid the spending limits such money entails. But the president's aides were already worried that the Morris ad budget, even with matching funds, might exhaust all the campaign money available, leaving other Democratic candidates starved for cash and furious. Morris's idea was quickly rejected.

Morris had used Clinton-Gore campaign funds -- so-called hard money -- to purchase the first round of ads, a $ 2.5 million buy devoted to the crime issue, in July 1995. What Morris did not recognize until later was that such " issue-advocacy" ads could be paid for by "soft" money available in unrestricted amounts to the two parties for "party-building" activities. Once he realized that, he made the Democratic National Committee treasury, in effect, a part of the Clinton-Gore war chest. Still, somebody had to raise the dollars, and Clinton was the only person capable of doing so in the amounts required.