Selected Skirmishes: Fourth and Long

Engineering Clinton's comeback


I know that the president has everyone and his half-brother giving him advice on how to come out of his nosedive in popularity and become the Harry Truman of 1996. He's been advised to move back to his "base," and there has been a great debate on what his "base" is. He's been told to talk less about his underwear and to be "more presidential." He's been counseled to focus on foreign affairs, that winning formula for reelection so ably exploited by Mr. Clinton's predecessor, what's-iz-name.

All nonsense. What is really needed is a radical reelection shtick, a ploy so bold and over the top that it stuns the conventional wisdom and allows Bill Clinton to belly-up to middle-class Americans on a gut level. For, despite vast rhetorical skills, the pieties the president mouths are so much Muzak to the American people–perfectly smooth and melodious when uttered in a State of the Union speech or a Larry King Live call-in, wholly forgotten by the first feminine hygiene spray commercial. Mr. President, it's time for dramatic action. Another one of your "change" speeches ain't gonna do it, wouldn't be prudent.

So here it is: Putting Reelection First: An Agenda for America.

? Tell the people you're sick of the hypocrisy in Washington and won't stand for reelection. You'll be lying, of course, but this is the way to begin to turn it around. At a dramatic White House press conference with a big picture of Abe Lincoln in back of you (he basically only served one term and had people shooting at him, pretty much like you), state that the only reason you're not resigning is that the thought of that sanctimonious prig, Al Gore, running things is too much for you to stomach. Apologize to the country for squandering the chance to help America, and for making everybody grumpy, and for getting so many of your old Arkansas friends indicted. Let out a big sigh, allow a tear to form, and comment that you feel so much better now that it will all be over soon. Soundbite payoff: You're the outsider again, going against the insiders from the inside-out.

? Dump Hillary and shack up with Madonna. This will be the first measure you've taken where people really believe your heart's in it. And since you've already admitted on national television that you've caused a lot of grief in your marriage, why not be a decent American and divorce Hillary so she might get on with her life? Being tied down to a lame duck is no way for her to spend the prime of her income-earning years. Soundbite payoff: "I cannot go on living a lie." Sure you could–but this will be way more laughs.

?Act like you're a victim of the special interests like Jerry Brown. This is a no-brainer (viz., Jerry Brown): When you get bounced out of traditional politics by the voters, act like you never really wanted to play their game, anyway. Soundbite payoff: You scapegoat the Big Boys for your incompetence and look morally superior to the lowlifes grubbing for power–just like you.

? Re-register Republican. Tell us that the American people spoke loudly in November, and that you're going to be taking your orders from "the people" from now on. Most office holders couldn't get away with this kind of switch, because it would destroy their credibility with the voters–but you haven't had that problem since Day 10 of your administration. People might even say, "Oh, so he's really a Republican. No wonder he's had so much trouble masquerading as a Democrat. Maybe now he'll get something done." This looks so crazy no one will know you're just playing the numbers: If your poll ratings don't go up, switch back to the Democrats, saying, "I'm not wedded to partisan politics–I'll do whatever works for the American people." Soundbite payoff: You can bravely challenge other officeholders to follow in your footsteps, mocking them when they resist as "lacking the courage to change."

? Fire the entire cabinet. Trump up a scandal about each and every one of them pilfering from the U.S. Treasury, getting the FBI to issue a report on the matter just like you did when you wanted to unload the White House travel agents. Ask the Republicans to hold hearings on every cabinet department, and appoint 160 special prosecutors to "look into everything." This will take the heat off of Whitewater, and bury all that bothersome ethics stuff in a sea of paper. Chances are that at least one or two of your current cabinet officials are innocent, which ought to create a public backlash against "the witch hunts going on in Washington." That can't but help you on your other matters, Mr. President. Soundbite payoff: "I don't care if I have to get rid of my entire administration to make this government work."

Admittedly, Mr. President, this reelection strategy is a longshot. But all this "move left, seize the center, shift right" advice is hooey: Who's gonna believe your nth set of core values is the real you? But people will believe that you're desperate, so run with that: "Bill Clinton, A Desperate Man for Desperate Times." Realistically, chances are you won't make it whatever you do from here on in. The question then becomes: Would you rather get beat with Hillary or Madonna? Follow your heart, Mr. President. Move to your hard-core values.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California at Davis.