The Permanent Campaigner

But what do you do when you've run your last campaign?

Published February 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

this time last year President Clinton got up in the well of the House Chamber and declared, in a memorable line from his State of the Union speech, that "the era of big government is over." Most people thought the era of Bill Clinton was over, too, so low were his fortunes at that point. But, lo and behold, he's back, preparing to deliver his fifth State of the Union speech Tuesday night.

It is likely to be a nuts-and-bolts speech, outlining plans for welfare and education reform, Medicaid and tax cuts. But while the address may be lacking in grandeur, it still represents a triumphant moment for the man who has achieved what Evan Thomas and a team of Newsweek reporters call, in their new book, "Back From The Dead: How Clinton Survived the Republican Revolution" (Atlantic Monthly Press), "the most remarkable political comeback of this century."

Now that he has proved that he is indeed the "comeback kid," where does Bill Clinton go from here? Where can he go? Salon spoke with Evan Thomas, Newsweek's Washington Bureau Chief, on the eve of the State of the Union speech.

Clinton's second term inaugural address was not especially memorable, to say the least. Can we expect more from his State of the Union address tonight and his budget presentation on Thursday?

He's limited by the fact that the investment bankers have taken over the administration. (Director of the Office of Management and Budget) Frank Raines, (Treasury Secretary Robert) Rubin and (White House Chief of Staff) Erskine Bowles are all former investment bankers, and they're in charge. The accountants have taken over. So I think the State of the Union speech is going to be mostly about balancing the budget. But it's going to be a little disingenuous because he will probably outline a lot of fixes that will appear to balance the budget in the short term. But I don't think they'll be taking on the more difficult long-term problems like entitlements.

Both Clinton and the Republicans who control Congress say Medicare, one of the big entitlements, is on the table.

I don't think they're going to step up to Medicare in a real way. They're going to do a lot of accountant's tricks that will have the effect of saving the Medicare trust fund and buying it more time, but really it will be bookkeeping changes. They won't cut benefits.

Will there be any movement toward expanding health-care coverage, even though that was Clinton's biggest defeat in his first term?

No, I don't think they're going to do that. There had been talk of trying to guarantee health care for all children, but I don't think they're going to step up to that. They will, however, continue to cut back on Medicaid.


There will be some kind of modest tax cut because he's promised it, but it will be modest. Some kind of family child credit thing that both parties talked about during the campaign.

What about campaign finance reform? Clinton has said it's at the top of his agenda.

I doubt he'll step up to the hard stuff. He backs the McCain-Feingold bill that goes after soft-money contributions, but you don't get the sense that this administration is willing to make a serious attempt at getting rid of soft-money contributions altogether. These are the kind of big reforms that people talk about, but I don't think he's going to do it. It's interesting to read the editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post these days. They're both trying to goad Clinton into doing it. It would be an interesting political move. But it doesn't seem that's going to happen anytime soon.

With Gingrich seriously weakened by his ethical problems, the reins of the Republican leadership are now in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. What are the chances of Clinton and Lott working together?

It would appear that whatever deals that are going to be made are going to be driven by the Lott-Clinton axis. There was a back channel between Clinton and Lott before the election that Dick Morris orchestrated. Now, with Gingrich wounded, the political momentum clearly lies with Lott. So from now on, the action will be on the Senate side, and then they'll take it over to the House to try to win some votes there. As far as the White House is concerned, the channel between Lott and Clinton still exists, and remember, Lott is a dealmaker. He wants to get things done.

Much of what you are anticipating is consistent with that wonderful term you use in the book to describe Clinton's re-election campaign -- offering America the "Small Deal."

Right, it's incremental. Dick Morris came up with the idea of things like school uniforms, the V-Chip and these small, incremental steps that affect people's lives in small but real ways. His advice to Clinton was: Don't take on the grand schemes. Don't try to reform all of health care. Rather, take small but meaningful steps that will improve people's lives. But don't gamble, don't take risks, don't roll the dice.

In your book, Morris emerges as a brilliant, ultimately tragicomic figure. How much does Clinton owe Morris for his political survival? Whose idea was it to move to the political center?

You've put your finger on the key. It's very hard to know where Clinton ends and Morris begins. To put it another way, it's hard to know where the consultant ends and the president begins. They became interchangeable parts in the sense that Clinton was a president who loved politics and Morris was a megalomaniacal consultant who thought he was the president. So there was a real overlap.

How did a president and a consultant become so interchangeable?

They bonded years ago through a mutual love of polling. That's very important in understanding Clinton's character. Clinton is a politician who loves polls, is driven by them and was taught by the master of polling -- Morris -- back in the mid-1970s, when he first wanted to run for governor. Then, once he won, he decided that governing was pure and politics were not. So he dumped Morris and lost his bid for reelection. And then it was like the light bulb went on, and he called Morris back.

Interestingly, the call to Morris was not made by Clinton, but by Hillary, the pragmatic Hillary. She called him up and said, in effect: "We need you back. We shouldn't have cashiered you." So he came back, and now he had purchase because Clinton had seen defeat. It was then that he said to Clinton, "Here's the phrase you have to remember -- 'the permanent campaign.' You are always running. You may think you're governing, but you're not. You're always running. And that's been the whole story of Bill Clinton's political life, the permanent campaign. He's always running, which makes this second term so interesting because he's not running anymore.

Many presidents retreat into foreign policy in their second term. Has Clinton grown into the presidency enough to cut a figure of respect abroad?

I think so. Certainly in the foreign policy area, Clinton has become much more presidential. I mean, this was a guy who couldn't salute when he was elected president. We spoke to people in the administration who said the first time the United States cruise-missiled Baghdad, Clinton was just tied in knots about it -- can we do this? Is this the right thing to do? Asking questions until the last possible second. Now, the last time we cruise-missiled Iraq, which was in the fall of 1996, Clinton was completely cool about it.

Here's where I give him credit: He did a couple of politically unpopular things that took some guts. One was going into Haiti and the other was going into Bosnia. You can argue whether those were good or bad things to do, but the fact is he had to ignore his own polls to do them. For a guy who is poll-driven, those were hard things to do. In both cases, he got away with it, and it strengthened him. It made him a more presidential figure. He filled out his suits a little more and became a better leader, and I think people sensed that.

If, as you say, Clinton is a politician who is engaged in a permanent campaign, now that he's been reelected for the last time, what does a politician like him do?

Well, that's the $64,000 question. I don't think he knows what to do because he's never had this experience before. In theory, it should be liberating. But I think he's been so deeply conditioned to seek popular approval and follow his polls that it's going to be hard for him to break out of that. He can rationalize that course by saying he really cares about Al Gore getting elected in the year 2000 and keeping the Democrats in power and winning back the Congress, and therefore he has to be politically mindful. But he does have a chance here to do some brave things. A president who is willing to really be aggressive, to be a leader, could force the country to step up to entitlement programs and could force Congress to step up to campaign finance reform. But it will require every bit of Clinton's political power, capital and bully pulpit to make it happen.

And a desire for a place in history.

In his book, Morris has Clinton asking, "Where am I going to stand in history?" Morris describes Clinton as being in the third tier of presidents, and Clinton wants to be in the second tier. The first tier is reserved for war leaders, like Washington and Lincoln. The second tier would be for transformational presidents who got us from one era to the next. Presidents like Teddy Roosevelt, who stopped unimpeded capitalism from ruining the country, or Truman, who brought us into the Cold War era. That's a nice goal, but I don't see how Clinton is going to do that. He talks vaguely about taking us into the Information Age, about education being one of his priorities, but the federal government can't do that much about it. There will be a lot of talk about being a transformational president, but it's hard to see where the actual transforming will come.


Buying Time

Is it going to take a bite out of their revenues? Absolutely. Is it going to be devastating to them? I don't think so.

Mark Mooradian, an analyst for Jupiter Communications, on the estimated $20 million AOL may pay in customer rebates because of disrupted service. (From "AOL Buys Some Time," in the Feb. 10 issue of Time magazine.)

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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