The blundering pundit

Dick Morris' predictions about the New York Senate race have all been off the mark.

Published May 16, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

If Rudy Giuliani's beleaguered strategists were looking for some encouraging signs this week as the mayor ponders his suddenly questionable run for Senate, they at least found one in Dick Morris' New York Post column. While many conservative pundits around the country spent the weekend suggesting that Giuliani's cancer scare and messy marital strife had ruined his chances to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton, Morris weighed in yesterday with a ringing endorsement.

Under the banner headline "Run, Rudy, Run!" Morris boldly insisted, "None of the recent flaps that have engulfed the political career and personal life of Mayor Giuliani will have any real effect on his ability to win the U.S. Senate seat from New York." Last week's uncomfortable soap opera between Rudy and his angry wife "won't cost him a quarter of 1 percentage point" come election day, Morris argued with total certainty.

Pretty heady stuff. But before Giuliani staffers start faxing the reassuring column out to nervous upstate supporters, the mayor's crew should understand that although Morris has been meticulously handicapping the Hillary/Rudy race for over a year now, spilling gallons of column ink forecasting the campaign, he has gotten virtually nothing right. Ever.

Morris was wrong all last spring, summer and fall when he confidently declared Hillary would never enter the race for Senate. And now, over the last three weeks, he's been spectacularly wrong in predicting Giuliani's political future. The only thing to be said in his defense is that he's consistent.

Morris, of course, is President Clinton's former advisor, the triangulation-loving political guru who was tossed overboard in 1996 after a tabloid revealed Morris' affair with a prostitute. Once dubbed by Time magazine as a "gleeful genius" and "the most influential private citizen in America," Morris now fills his time dashing off a weekly New York Post column used almost exclusively to try to win small bouts of revenge against the Clinton clan.

Oh sure, from time to time Morris casts his political gaze nationally, as he did last year in cautioning readers, "It would be a serious blunder to count out Liddy Dole ... With her sterling record at the Red Cross, Elizabeth Dole could well be the first woman president." But since then, he's mostly dedicated himself to writing off Hillary's Senate chances as nonexistent.

Here's a typical 1999 dispatch, one in an endless collection of botched forecasts. Morris writes gleefully:

The fact she is planning to rent, not buy, a home here and her recent flip-flops on issues involving Israel aren't helping her either. She just looks more tawdry with each maneuver. Will she be able to reverse field and start moving up? Nope. No way she will do anything but lose votes even faster. Hillary is sinking fast. The bottom line: She won't run.

Of course, Hillary, a proud New York homeowner, now leads or is tied with Giuliani in most of the major statewide polls. (So much for Morris' supposed mastery of polling data.)

And in a neat trick, Morris often doubled not only as an anti-Hillary columnist for the Post, but as an on-the-record source, too. Appearing in the pages last year as "a longtime consultant to the Clintons," Morris, who once riffed on talk radio that Hillary was a lesbian, told a Post news reporter, "I think she is going to look at these [poll] numbers, understand they aren't moving, and pull out. The first lady is on the ropes right now."

Only recently has Morris turned his attention to Giuliani's campaign. It started with the mayor's announcement that he has prostate cancer. Morris could hardly believe the mayor's good political fortune. "How can Hillary attack a man undergoing chemotherapy and/or surgery?" he wondered. The columnist was sure of one thing; Hillary is an attack machine. "Negative campaigning is the only weapon Hillary Clinton has," he wrote. "Like a dolphin, she determines her position by bouncing sonar-like negatives off her adversaries. Unless she is in combat, she is confused, without objectives, and has no bearings."

That's an odd characterization considering that a recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 52 percent of New York voters associated "attacking" with Giuliani, while just 28 percent thought the phrase applied to Mrs. Clinton.

But Morris was carried away on a sea of comical sentimentality. "Giuliani has always appealed to our heads. Now, in his weakness amid his wounds, he will appeal to our hearts. Never before has he needed us. He seemed never to need anything. His self-possession and confidence seemed to defy all vulnerability. He seemed solitary, independent, aloof and alone."

Well, not completely alone, as it turns out, after Giuliani admitted to an affair with Judith Nathan and told reporters his marriage was over, apparently without telling his wife. In the following week's Post column Morris was again at Giuliani's side, this time explaining away the mayor's new lady friend. And again, Morris couldn't believe the mayor's run of good luck.

"Of all people in the universe, Hillary Clinton cannot say 'boo' about it," he wrote. As for the mayor's wife, Morris was not concerned, as he became the first and only New York columnist dumb enough to try to take her out at the knees with a preemptive strike: "If she does object to Rudy's behavior in public, she may overstay her welcome in our hearts. New Yorkers never really liked Donna Hanover much to begin with. She seemed too eager to trade on her husband's job and fame in her own career." Of course, once a wounded Hanover had spoken her mind in front of Gracie Mansion last week, Morris' words rang even more hollow.

Morris also conveniently sidesteps the thorny question raised by Hanover: Did Rudy have an affair with a young staff member who now enjoys a $150,000 job as chief of the city's tourist bureau? When asked about it by reporters last week, Rudy barked, "Get lost." Does Morris really think that strategy will work until November? Perhaps the media will simply heed the advice of New York Times columnist Bill Safire, whose normally sharp conspiracy antenna suddenly went limp when the question turned to the mayor's personal conduct: "Both Giuliani and his former flack deny his wife's charge of an affair; in the absence of evidence, we should presume innocence."

Like any well-paid pundit, Morris never looks back to acknowledge his boneheaded predictions. But when Rudy's marriage publicly unraveled last week and the specter of Sen. Clinton seemed even more real, Morris, at least temporarily, became unglued. Appearing on Fox News Channel's "The Edge" hosted by Paula Zahn, Morris the master conspirator uncorked a beauty: "Let me say that I have my suspicions about how this whole story started. Let us remember that this is not a guy who suddenly is coming into the public light. This guy's been the mayor of the city of New York for seven years, every moment, every move of his scrutinized by an entire City Hall press corps, followed continuously. How is it that the photograph of Judy Nathan, who he's been seeing for a year, reportedly, only just surfaced now?"

A bemused Zahn asked Morris the obvious: So Hillary was behind all this?

Morris: "I have no evidence that she is, but every time Hillary gets into a dogfight, she has a private investigator. She checks out the personal lives of her opponents, be they Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones or any -- Monica Lewinsky, George Bush. There's a constant effort to unmask the personal lives of one's opponents." Of course, this must all have come as a surprise to the editors of the New York Post who first published photos of Rudy and his gal pal, but only after sitting on the snapshots for 10 days.

By the time he penned yesterday's Post column, Morris had cooled on the conspiracy theory. Instead, he decided to compare apples and oranges between the mayor's family troubles and those of Bill Clinton, insisting, "If Rudy decides to stay in the race, these events will no more drag down his vote share than Monica hurt Clinton's approval ratings." Naturally, Morris is smart enough to realize the difference between approval rating and vote-getting. Post-Monica, President Clinton never had to round up any hard ballots. Rudy still has to face the voters.

None of this bothers the Post's man because if Rudy remains a candidate he'll have the most important ally of all: money. "His fund-raising will, if anything, accelerate," wrote Morris. "Some bright young person in the Giuliani campaign seized the moment and sent out a direct-mail appeal asking for his previous donors to double their contributions to show their support for the embattled mayor. Now, each resolicitation will bring in a new bushel of cash." Because after all, what inspires loyalty and confidence among the GOP faithful like a pro-abortion adulterer who's been diagnosed with cancer?

If it's true Giuliani really has not yet decided what to do about his run for the Senate and he's looking for outside counsel, he might want to do what everyone else does when it comes to Morris' free political advice: Read it, chuckle and toss it.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Dick Morris Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani U.s. Senate