History

The Long Shadow of Dick Morris

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Fifteen years ago today, Timothy McVeigh carried out one of the worst acts of mass murder in American history, killing 168 people—including over a dozen kids in a day care center—at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Those deaths had repercussions not just for the friends and families of the deceased but for the course of American politics:

There was a turning point in the mid-'90s standoff between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a moment when the White House was able to start setting the terms of the debate and the GOP went on the defensive. In most accounts, the shift came when the Republicans' willingness to "shut down" the federal government backfired during the budget battle at the end of 1995. But the April bombing in Oklahoma City and the militia panic that followed was at least as important in shifting the grounds of the argument. They allowed Clinton's supporters to play up the "extreme" anti-government rhetoric coming from Gingrich's supporters in the talk radio right, and to link it to the "extremism" of McVeigh and the militias.

A similar dynamic is at work in 2009. When pundits weave a small number of unrelated incidents into a "pattern" of crime, then link it to the rhetoric of Obama's opponents, it becomes easier to marginalize nonviolent, noncriminal critics on the right, just as a red scare makes it easier to marginalize nonviolent, noncriminal figures on the left.

That's me writing last year. For more details on how this marginalization process was carried out, I recommend this article in the Washington Examiner, which quotes a memo that Dick Morris—back when he was a sleazy Clinton advisor instead of a sleazy Clinton critic—wrote to his boss after McVeigh's attack:

America's most influential foot fetishist.

Clinton was in deep political trouble in April 1995. Six months earlier, voters had resoundingly rejected Democrats in the 1994 mid-term elections, giving the GOP control of both House and Senate. Polls showed the public viewed Clinton as weak, incompetent and ineffective. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his GOP forces seized the initiative on virtually every significant issue, while Clinton appeared to be politically dead. The worst moment may have come on April 18, the day before the bombing, when Clinton plaintively told reporters, "The president is still relevant here."…

[O]n April 27, Morris presented Clinton with a comeback strategy based on his polling. Morris prepared an extensive agenda for the session, a copy of which he would include in the paperback version of his 1999 memoir, Behind the Oval Office. This is how the April 27 agenda began:

AFTERMATH OF OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING

A. Temporary gain: boost in ratings—here today, gone tomorrow

B. More permanent gain: Improvements in character/personality attributes—remedies weakness, incompetence, ineffectiveness found in recent poll

C. Permanent possible gain: sets up Extremist Issue vs. Republicans

Later, under the heading "How to use extremism as issue against Republicans," Morris told Clinton that "direct accusations" of extremism wouldn't work because the Republicans were not, in fact, extremists. Rather, Morris recommended what he called the "ricochet theory." Clinton would "stimulate national concern over extremism and terror," and then, "when issue is at top of national agenda, suspicion naturally gravitates to Republicans." As that happened, Morris recommended, Clinton would use his executive authority to impose "intrusive" measures against so-called extremist groups. Clinton would explain that such intrusive measures were necessary to prevent future violence, knowing that his actions would, Morris wrote, "provoke outrage by extremist groups who will write their local Republican congressmen." Then, if members of Congress complained, that would "link right-wing of the party to extremist groups." The net effect, Morris concluded, would be "self-inflicted linkage between [GOP] and extremists."

Bear that background in mind as you read Clinton's op-ed in today's New York Times.