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The Clinton Reelection Machine: Placing the Party Organization in Peril.

By most accounts, the 1996 presidential election was a yawner. On this conventional view, President Clinton had the early edge because his opponent, the former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, was an uninspiring candidate. Dole's nomination, coming fast on the heels of several grave missteps by the rookie congressional Republican leadership, combined to give Clinton a substantial lead in the polls. Last, but not least, the 1992 mantra lived on--it was the economy stupid and its vigor buoyed an otherwise troubled president. In turn, given Clinton's lead, the news items that captured the most attention were such things as the premature resignation of Clinton consultant Dick Morris, who admitted to a long-term liaison with a Washington, D.C. prostitute; Bob Dole's surprise retirement from the Senate; and Dole's selection of erstwhile primary foe, Jack Kemp, as the vice-presidential running mate. Such news flashes were not the makings of a memorable campaign.

Au contraire. On closer examination, the oh so predictable presidential campaign of 1996 displayed many interesting and disturbing developments related to the notion of presidents as candidates. When presidents run for reelection, there is an undeniable impact on the institution of the presidency.(1) Incumbent presidents consistently exploit the office to their electoral advantage, and some even acknowledge the fact, such as George Bush in 1992 who announced, "I'll do what I have to do to get reelected."(2) And while President Clinton may not have verbalized such a commitment, the same mindset was evident. Indeed, this article's thesis is that a case study of the Clinton reelection campaign reveals new tactics and interesting features that, if adopted by future incumbents, portend a significant impact on the presidency and the party organization.

With an intense focus on securing his presidential lease for another four years, the Clinton reelection team sought to create the perfect reelection organization. Ironically, however, this quest for perfection had unintended consequences that President Clinton would certainly have sought to prevent given a second chance. In short, his zealous pursuit of reelection brought peril to his party and jeopardized his ability to govern during the second term. Oddly enough, the seemingly colorless presidential campaign had tremendous impact on the presidency and the party organization. To make this point, I offer an analysis of Clinton's reelection campaign by identifying the unique features of his quest for reelection, those elements that have emerged in prior presidential reelection campaigns, and, finally, an examination of a "perfect" campaign's fallout.

What's New?

There is no question that the disastrous midterm election results thrust the Clinton reelection machine into high gear roughly twenty-four months before the election. Stunned by the enormity of the losses and eager to maintain his hold on the executive branch, President Clinton, his White House staff, and his political consultants focused on assembling the best possible reelection campaign operation. Following the Reagan model in 1984 (which Reagan advisor, Stuart Spencer, claims was an emulation of Truman in 1948), the Clinton team studied its strategy, tactics, and timing.(3) To this Reagan model, they added extraordinary fund-raising on an expedited schedule and leadership by a candidate immersed in election details and eager to campaign for reelection.

At the same time, the Clinton team sought to avoid the Bush pitfalls. Unlike the Bush reelection campaign, the Clinton team was noted for early planning; appointing a talented, experienced staff; and maintaining a relatively harmonious relationship between the Clinton-Gore campaign organization and the White House senior staff To some degree, the modus operandi of the Clinton reelection team had to have been "See George run. Do the opposite." But the strategy was not just an aversion of the Bush pitfalls. Rather, it was the introduction of new techniques and risky strategies that helped pave the way for victory.

First, on the urging of political consultant Dick Morris, Clinton unleashed a barrage of campaign commercials well over a year before the election. The strategy of early, intense television advertising was unprecedented in its timing, scope, and success, producing an important early advantage for Clinton that ultimately proved impossible to overcome. What made this strategy possible was, in part, the lawyerly dissection of the Federal Election Campaigns Act (FECA) that allowed for a flurry of "issue advertisements" subsidized by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Since the campaign commercials did not explicitly promote President Clinton's campaign or the defeat of Bob Dole, they could be described as "issue advocacy" and were not subject to the federal campaign finance limits.(4) Not surprisingly, this early media strategy (pre-June 1996), estimated to have cost $34 million, was quite controversial among the Clinton team.(5) Some senior aides were skeptical because they thought it was simply too early to capture voters' attention and therefore a waste of money. In the end, this unconventional strategy proved to be a key element to victory.

To subsidize the early media strategy, President Clinton spent much of 1995 raising money, and, to his credit, the efforts were so successful that he was basically free from the fund-raising chore once 1996 arrived. In raising funds early, Clinton forced key Democratic supporters to commit to him. Once they were on the Clinton bandwagon, it was difficult for potential primary challengers to justify a run against the president. In brief, the early fund-raising strategy had three key benefits: it paid for the media campaign, protected President Clinton from potential Democratic challengers, and served to free up his 1996 campaigning schedule.

And it was not just President Clinton who was hard at work raising cash. Such a costly, innovative strategy thrust DNC fund-raisers into overdrive. According to campaign finance expert Anthony Corrado,
 The parties could only compete in two ways. First they could find new
 sources of money, such as the Asian community that was a particular focus
 of the solicitation efforts of John Huang. Second they could encourage
 their traditional donors to move from being $50,000 or $100,000 donors to
 becoming $100,000 or $250,000 donors.(6)


To convince donors that such an increase was worth their while, the Clinton team devised the creative incentive programs that included a snooze in the Lincoln bedroom or sipping coffee in the White House. Whether one finds such machinations ingenious or despicable, their use allowed the DNC to achieve its financial goals on a timetable that stifled Democratic presidential wannabes while confusing and confounding federal investigators and Members of Congress hoping to uncover fund-raising illegalities.

In sum, collecting millions of dollars well before January 1996, Clinton positioned himself as the Democratic nominee, strengthened his electoral advantage, and put the Republicans on the defensive. While Dole's campaign was hamstrung by the $37 million primary campaign budget and distracted by the modestly successful campaign of business magnate Steve Forbes, the Democrats were improving Clinton's odds by carpet bombing the airwaves with ads denouncing the mean-spirited "Dole-Gingrich" Congress.(7)

Another unique feature of the Clinton-Gore 1996 campaign was the highly influential role of political consultants. The general strategist, Dick Morris, was aided by pollsters Mark Penn and Douglas Schoen and a cadre of Democratic media consultants (Bob Squier, Hank Scheinkopf, and Marius Penczner). Of course, prior presidents have sought the advice of political consultants, but the degree to which Clinton sought the advice of these consultants and incorporated them into the existing White House operations, not simply into campaign matters, was without precedent.(8) For example, at least one news account gave Morris credit for most of Clinton's policy agenda:
 It was Morris, in opposition to many inside the White House, who pushed the
 president to propose his own plan to balance the budget in the early summer
 of 1995. It was Morris who early this year urged Clinton to talk up public
 confidence by emphasizing good economic news, rather than focusing on
 feelings of economic insecurity, a strategy that has paid dividends in the
 president's current lead over Dole. It was Morris who argued for a
 presidential posture that was less partisan and more above the fray. It was
 Morris who helped drive the values themes that helped to reshape the
 president's image. It was Morris who prodded the White House to produce a
 flurry of new initiatives for the president to espouse.(9)


No doubt, some White House insiders will dispute the degree to which Morris influenced the agenda. Nevertheless, no matter what his exact role, it appears that Morris's direct access to the president and ability to persuade him to embrace controversial positions and programs was highly unusual.

Such political advice was not free. According to records at the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the DNC spent more than $4.2 million to cover reelection consulting costs.(10) Notably, this figure excludes Dick Morris's $1.5 million in fees that were paid by the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign and garnered from ad commissions.(11) Even without these additional expenditures, just by way of comparison, the entire DNC debt for the same period (1995-1996) was $6.3 million.(12) Again, the amount of DNC funding spent for political assistance to the White House during the reelection period was unprecedented.

What's Old?

Although there were interesting and intriguing innovations in the Clinton reelection campaign, other aspects resemble the campaigns of previous presidents. Two features--the creation of an independent campaign organization and the centralization of reelection planning among the White House senior staff resemble all prior reelection campaigns since Nixon.

Since President Eisenhower's reelection campaign in 1956, there has been a gradual shift away from a party-dominated reelection campaign to a White House-centered one. Critical institutional developments such as the decline of party, the electoral reforms of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ease with which presidents can expand their staffs, and the larger trend of centralization have resulted in a White House-centered reelection campaign. Where party activists once selected the nominee, the primary system has emerged and negated their influential role. Where parties once ran the president's reelection campaign, they are now mere sideliners providing financial assistance. Where parties were once key strategists in presidential reelection campaigns, they are now mere hosts to the national convention--the quadrennial infomercial largely devoid of excitement or influence.

Associated with these developments has been recent president's consistent use of a campaign organization independent of the party (e.g., Bush-Quayle '92, Clinton-Gore '96). Rather than delegate campaign planning to the party organization (a role it historically fulfilled), presidents since Nixon have created an independent campaign organization staffed by former White House staff members and presidential loyalists. The campaign organization handles those tasks that the White House staff cannot legally perform such as fund-raising, delegate recruitment and outreach, election law compliance, and the purchase of campaign goods and services.

In conjunction with the independent campaign organization, White House aides have stepped in to coordinate much of the campaign planning. According to one former White House staffer, "When the president runs for reelection, his real campaign headquarters is ... the White House."(13) True to form, the Clinton administration continued the trend of a White House-dominated reelection campaign. Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, George Stephanopoulos, Harold Ickes, Political Director Douglas Sosnick, and other senior staff members played key roles in the campaign. The role of the senior staff is not unusual given the importance of reelection and the electoral impact of policy decisions during an election season. President Clinton, like his most recent predecessors, adopted a campaign management system best suited for the current political environment.

The Perils of Perfection

While the Clinton reelection campaign demonstrated both innovative and traditional elements of presidential reelection campaigning, the fallout of Clinton's effort to create the perfect campaign was significant. On one hand, the Clinton reelection strategy achieved the ultimate goal of victory for the president as witnessed by his comfortable defeat of rival Bob Dole. On the other hand, one key element of the victory, the media blitz, placed enormous pressure on DNC fund-raisers. That pressure, in turn, appears to have caused the Clinton team to have adopted fund-raising tactics perilously close to, and perhaps across, the legal line. While these tactics may yet be vindicated as legal, it is nevertheless clear that their exposure has produced considerable political embarrassment.

President Clinton and the DNC now face congressional and Justice Department investigations, and the DNC has already returned a large number of foreign contributions. More recently, it was revealed that many of the foreign contributions might have been more than illegally solicited. One news account suggested that there might have been a possible exchange of satellite intelligence to the Chinese for campaign contributions--a transaction that may have provided Beijing with the power to blind U.S. spy satellites.(14) Furthermore, Vice President Al Gore's involvement in dubious fund-raising efforts, such as the fund-raiser held at a Buddhist temple in California, may possibly jeopardize his quest for the presidency.

Political embarrassment is not the only cost. The DNC has incurred large legal fees to defend itself and monitor future compliance. As a result, the DNC debt increased a half million dollars after the election, from $6.3 to $6.8 (as of June 1998)--an unusual phenomenon in an off-election year. Compare this figure to the postpresidential campaign debt of 1993 that was a mere $2.2 million.(15) Not surprisingly, the party organization has been forced to consider cutting existing programs and limiting staff growth.(16) The damage sustained by Clinton's reelection campaign will live long after the Clinton family's departure from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is likely that the investigations into illegal campaign finance practices will continue as will the desperate financial situation of the DNC.

In addition, one cannot overlook the electoral impact of a penurious party organization especially at a time in which the Democratic party base is eroding throughout the country. The financial crisis precipitated by the Clinton reelection campaign comes at a time in which Republicans continue to hold a loose lead on the House, a firm lead on the Senate, a lead in key gubernatorial races (e.g., Florida, Texas), and are making gains in state houses across the country. In short, Clinton's dogged pursuit of a second term drained the party of finite, precious resources, leaving the party poorly positioned to improve its national strength and status.

The party is, however, not the only victim. President Clinton's second-term achievements have been stymied by allegations of fund-raising illegalities. Numerous news reports indicating that President Clinton was well aware of the DNC's efforts have linked him to the fund-raising scandal. According to a New York Times report,
 President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore received a constant stream of
 memorandums providing them the most minute details of the Democratic
 Party's fund-raising in 1996.... The documents add to a growing body of
 evidence that undercuts the President's early efforts to draw a distinction
 between his activities on behalf of his own campaign and those of the
 party.(17)


Given the scandal-plagued Clinton presidency, it is not clear where the fund-raising investigations will rank. It is, however, safe to say that the campaign finance investigations raised the ugly specter of Watergate and no doubt distracted the president from the business of governing.

Future presidents would do well to learn from the Clinton reelection experience. A "go-for-broke" campaign strategy can indeed make the party organization "go broke" and place presidents in postelection legal and political jeopardy. Certainly, the Clinton reelection campaign will go down in the history books as one heralded for its strategic brilliance and organizational discipline. Perhaps future incumbents will study the Clinton model. In doing so, they would be wise to consider the perils of seeking perfection as revealed throughout the victor's second term.

Notes

(1.) See Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, Presidents as Candidates: Inside the White House for the Presidential Campaign (New York: Garland, 1997).

(2.) Ann Devroy, "New Hampshire Awaits Latest Edition of Candidate Bush," Washington Post, January 15, 1992, p. Al. Devroy was quoting a statement made by President Bush in an interview with David Frost.

(3.) Interview with Stuart Spencer, June 5, 1998.

(4.) See Anthony Corrado, "Giving, Spending and `Soft Money,'" Journal of Law and Policy VI, no. 1 (1997): 51-52.

(5.) Ibid., p. 52.

(6.) Ibid., p. 53.

(7.) Democratic campaign advertisements often used a darkened black-and-white photograph of Majority Leader (turned presidential candidate) Dole and Speaker Gingrich standing arm-in-arm while mentioning the most egregious Republican budget cuts (e.g., eliminating school lunch programs, funding for environmental clean up, etc.) in the background.

(8.) Consultants include President Nixon: David Derge, Bob Teeter, and Richard Wirthlin; President Ford: Bob Teeter, Richard Wirthlin, and Stuart Spencer; President Carter: Pat Caddell; President Reagan: Stuart Spencer, Richard Wirthlin, and Bob Teeter; and President Bush: Bob Teeter. See Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, "Campaigning to Govern: Political Consultants as Presidential Advisors" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, September 3-6, 1998).

(9.) Dan Balz, "Dick Morris's Fall from Grace," Washington Post National Weekly Edition, September 16-22, 1996, p.11.

(10.) These figures include 1995-96 expenditures to Penn and Schoen; Squier, Knapp, and Ochs; Mandy Grunwald; Carville and Begala; Marius Penczer and Hank Scheinkopf. I did not include expenditures to Stanley Greenberg since he was not President Clinton's designated campaign pollster. Figures are preliminary and subject to revision in future drafts. Contact the author for further information. Data collected at the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Washington, DC, July 1998.

(11.) John Harris, "Clinton's Campaign Consultants Reaped Millions from TV Ads," Washington Post, January 4, 1998, p. A4.

(12.) See Federal Election Commission (FEC) document, "1995-96 Committee Summary Report, Activity Beginning January 1, 1995," obtained at the FEC, Washington, DC.

(13.) Bradley Patterson, The Ring of Power (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 87.

(14.) William Satire, "U.S. Security for Sale," New York Times, May 18, 1998, p. A2.3.

(15.) See FEC documents, "1997-98 Committee Summary Report, Activity Beginning January 1, 1997" and "1993-94 Committee Summary Report, Activity Beginning January 1, 1993," obtained at the FEC, Washington, DC.

(16.) See Dan Balz, "Swimming in a Pool of Red Ink," The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, May 26, 1997, p. 10.

(17.) Alison Mitchell, "Memos to Clinton Kept Him Informed on Fund-Raising," New York Times, April 3, 1997, p. Al.

KATHRYN DUNN TENPAS

Assistant Professor of Political Science University of South Florida

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, Ph.D., University of Virginia, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Florida. She has contributed articles to professional journals, including Political Science Quarterly and The American Review of Politics, and is the author of Presidents as Candidates: Inside the White House for the Presidential Campaign.
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Title Annotation:Pres Bill Clinton
Author:TENPAS, KATHRYN DUNN
Publication:Presidential Studies Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1998
Words:3096
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