Dick Morris departs, but his work is done

Germond & Witcover

September 02, 1996|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

CHICAGO -- Scottish poet Bobby Burns sure had it right. The best laid plans of the Bill Clinton campaign for a totally harmonious and trouble-free Democratic National Convention suddenly went agley on the final day with the embarrassing resignation of chief political strategist Dick Morris.

The report of his involvement with a prostitute to whom he was alleged to have shared campaign speeches came on the day President Clinton's acceptance address was to cap a triumphant week on the campaign trail and in the convention hall.

The convention itself was a brilliant example of orchestration for the television age, presenting just enough dissent on the party's most divisive issue, Mr. Clinton's signing of the Republican child-unfriendly welfare-reform bill, to contrast with the GOP's sanitized lovefest in San Diego.

While Mr. Clinton on his whistle-stop train trip to Chicago announced daily program initiatives, the convention hummed along in a celebratory mood that conveyed the obvious confidence the delegates had in his re-election.

That confidence has not been shaken by the Morris resignation, but it did inject a sour note into what otherwise was a week any presidential nominee would want, presenting the party's best face.

It was a momentary embarrassment for a Clinton campaign working to wrest the family-values issue from the Republicans. And it gave the Republican nominee Bob Dole a means to question again the ''character'' of the opposition, and by FTC extension the president himself. Mr. Dole commented: ''It says something about who you surround yourself with, doesn't it?''

But examples of campaign aides resigning for alleged misconduct are hardly unheard-of. It is one thing for a presidential candidate to be accused of sexual dalliance, as was the case of Gary Hart in 1987, and quite another for a campaign aide, even one in such a critical role as played by Mr. Morris.

It is hard to see how his removal will make much difference to the Clinton campaign. While he was indisputably the central figure in the strategy of positioning the president between liberal members of his own party and conservative Republicans in Congress, that strategy has done its work.

President Clinton today holds the centrist ground Mr. Morris sought to have him occupy, co-opting the Republicans on a wide range of issues they once held firmly, such as fighting crime with more cops on the street. It is harder today to attack the Democrats as soft on crime.

Lifted albatrosses

It was this positioning about which Mario Cuomo referred when he praised Mr. Clinton for ''easing the stigmas that had been branded upon our reputation over the years'' and for ''lifting the albatrosses from around the neck of this great Democratic Party.''

So in a sense Mr. Morris had already made his most-needed political contribution to the Clinton campaign. With the president up to 20 points ahead in some polls, it will take no political genius at his side to navigate the next 10 weeks to election day, barring some major unforeseen development.

Mr. Clinton in his acceptance speech proclaimed that ''we are on the right track to the 21st century.'' One of Mr. Morris' prime yardsticks of success in positioning the president was whether voters in polls felt the country was on the right or wrong track in making life better. During his tenure as the Clinton campaign's political guru, polls showed for the first time that more Americans believed the country was on the right rather than the wrong track.

Despite Mr. Morris' departure, the Clinton campaign will hardly be without a political heavyweight to keep it on the centrist road. His name is Bill Clinton, who well before Mr. Morris' advent was selling himself as a ''New Democrat.'' He has been determined to chart a middle course for the Democratic Party distinct from the liberal, New Deal policies with which the party had been identified ever since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The resignation of Dick Morris will not change that.

It will not be surprising if the Republicans try to keep the story about Mr. Morris before the voters, nor will it be surprising if the talk-show hosts on radio and television play it for all it's worth. But unless there are more allegations touching on the Clinton campaign, it is likely to be little more than a bump in the road to the November election.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/02/96

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