Clinton staff annoys Republicans by tapping successful Reagan style '96 campaign adapts its optimistic themes

June 02, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- "Re-live the best years of your lives," proclaims a whimsical bumper sticker. "Reagan in '96!"

That's not possible, of course, but President Clinton is giving those nostalgic for a return of the Gipper a reprieve of sorts. He is borrowing the best scenes from the 1984 Reagan campaign.

Four years ago, as a candidate, Clinton denounced the 1980s as the decade of greed. As president he has battled to undo much of Reagan's conservative legacy.

Yet as he runs for re-election, Clinton's advisers have hit upon an irresistible truth: The model for successful campaigns is the 1984 Republican re-election effort.

Clinton strategists have hit a couple of speed bumps: Ronald Reagan did not have Whitewater to contend with. Neither did the opposition party in 1984 make an issue of the president's draft record. But as in 1984, the economy is strong, the nation is at peace and the popularity of the man in the White House appears to be cresting at an opportune time.

In 1984, the unofficial title of Reagan's campaign was "Morning Again in America." Its TV ads projected sunny images of an America whose future was limitless. Today, those in the Clinton-Gore '96 brain trust are mimicking it in ways large and small.

"Some of it has just become common sense," says George Stephanopoulos, a top Clinton adviser. "But there's no question that the Reagan example is the model of how to run a good incumbent campaign."

"They're using our entire playbook," said Jim Pitts, a former Reagan advance man. "They've even copied our 'rally squads.' "

This is a reference to the Clinton campaign's practice of mustering Democratic volunteers as foils at Bob Dole's campaign events. The Reagan campaign did this to the Democrats in 1984.

"They arrive, these 'spontaneous' hecklers, with preprinted signs speeches that were announced by the Dole people only an hour and a half before," Pitts said with grudging admiration. "We did it, too."

Other ways in which the Clinton campaign is aping the 1984 campaign -- in which Reagan carried 49 of 50 states against Walter F. Mondale -- include:

Identifying an "issue of the week" or "theme of the day" and trying to keep Clinton focused on it. This is usually achieved by planning a day trip for the president that is coordinated with comments by White House officials.

Polling public opinion before crafting the president's response on a subject.

Running a campaign that tries to position the president in a dozen states that are key to an Electoral College victory.

Copying Reagan's public performances. White House aides went so far as to call the Reagan Library in California to obtain tapes of Reagan's foreign trips, along with the preparations.

This practice started, Reagan aides said, in 1994, just before Clinton's trip to Normandy to celebrate the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Reagan's 1984 performance there on the 40th anniversary had been hailed as one of the great symbolic moments in presidential communication.

Clinton aides have since obtained tapes of Reagan in Canada, Japan, Korea and Indonesia.

But some Republicans who worked for Reagan in 1984 take scant consolation in such flattery.

"I was breathless when I heard he called the library," said Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan. "It just reinforces the image of Clinton being someone who will stand for anything because he stands for nothing."

Michael K. Deaver, who orchestrated Reagan's appearances, said Clinton's veer to the right on cultural issues such as school uniforms and gay marriages are most un-Reagan-like.

"From the first time I met Reagan," Deaver said, "he said to me: 'Don't try to make me something I'm not. The camera doesn't lie to you, and you can't fool the people.' Clinton believes just the opposite. If he really wants to mimic Reagan, he needs to figure out who he is first."

Democrats argue that Clinton is emulating not Reagan but a textbook campaign.

Clinton loyalists also say the president has long sought to move his party to the political center. And, they contend, Clinton has developed his own persona -- a popular one -- as a hard worker who will stand up for working people.

"But I won't kid you," said White House political director Douglas B. Sosnik, "we really studied the 1984 campaign looking for what to do."

Sosnik said the Clinton campaign also hit upon variations of its own, including not having the president formally announce his candidacy for re-election yet, and raising money earlier and spending it later.

In 1996, the economic indicators are strong, but the public is still apprehensive.

Thus, Clinton has fine-tuned "Morning Again in America" to something akin to "It's Morning Again in America -- But There's Work to Do."

"The president talks about the 'Age of Possibility' and what is going right, but that's not the whole truth," said Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, a top aide. "He goes into what needs to be done, too."

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