Clinton Culls From GOP's '84 Playbook
WASHINGTON — In March 1994 and again last year, an unusual source asked for archival information from the Reagan presidential library in California: the Clinton White House.
Campaign operatives were looking for videotapes, memoranda, and material from trips Mr. Reagan took abroad that would help them fashion a reelection strategy for President Clinton.
The dip into Reagan's dusty archives, which has left some researchers at the library miffed, points up how much the White House is trying to use the 1984 GOP campaign as a road map for its own reelection.
More than just the most recent example of an incumbent president winning a second term, the Reagan reelection represents what Clinton officials and political analysts say was the most skilled execution to date of a campaign to keep the White House.
"They simply did the best job of reelecting the president," says Ann Lewis, deputy campaign manager for Mr. Clinton. "They understood that it was about the president, and that you maximize the advantages of being president."
They also understood the value of a smoothly run ship - unlike the Bush reelection effort of 1992, where squabbling was rampant, adds Lewis. The idea is "to build a seamless web of the White House, the campaign, and the Democratic Party," she says, with daily conference calls to keep the agenda and message coordinated.
Not that the Clinton White House always comes across as one big happy family. Differences of opinion - some centering on key tactical areas, such as Clinton's practice of "triangulation," in which he positions himself between Republicans and congressional Democrats - bubble to the surface from time to time.
Conservative Clinton strategist Dick Morris, a proponent of triangulation, and deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes, the de facto head of Clinton's reelection effort and a liberal, are often at loggerheads. They have also clashed over Clinton's tactic of co-opting Republican themes and positions, another Morris scheme.
But for now, no one's complaining too loudly. Clinton is beating the presumed GOP nominee, Bob Dole, by about 20 points in opinion polls. And all without formally announcing he's running for reelection. So far, Clinton has been able to run almost a stealth reelection effort - at least as far as the public's concerned. But then, being president is the ultimate platform from which to run for president.
At the reelection headquarters, a bright, airy, half-populated office anonymously tucked away a few blocks from the White House, a red sign sits atop a file cabinet: "It's the incumbency, stupid." Overall, Clinton has had an easy ride in the campaign. Like President Reagan - and unlike Senator Dole, who drained his resources fighting off challengers in the primaries - Clinton faced no primary opposition. He raised money early and often, scaring off potential challengers.
But the Reagan analogy goes well beyond the level of campaign mechanics. Historian Garry Wills notes that Clinton has adopted Reagan's "soaring style" - an optimistic, high-minded rhetorical manner that Reagan himself borrowed from Franklin Roosevelt. Dole's laconic, dour manner only accentuates Clinton's upbeat verbosity.
"Like Reagan, [Clinton] is a great communicator," says Democratic strategist Mark Melman. "Reagan did it by anecdote, telling a good story. Clinton does it through empathy, through connection with people."
Some Republicans are downright indignant that Clinton is openly borrowing from the 1984 GOP playbook. Nor has it gone unnoticed by Reagan aides.
"I guess it's true that imitation is the highest form of flattery," says Joanne Drake, chief of staff at Reagan's Los Angeles office, who adds that it's "impossible" to compare Reagan and Clinton.
Some administration officials grumble, too, that the Reagan-Clinton analogy is overdone. The Clinton reelection playbook is simply a compendium of techniques that work - from Reagan's above-the-fray tone to the Clinton 1992 "war room" strategy of rapid response, which has now been folded into White House operations.
Still, the Dole campaign has itself nodded recently toward the success of Reagan's 1984 campaign. Former Reagan image-meister Michael Deaver is now helping the Dole team with visuals for the August convention. And former Reagan campaign speechwriter Ken Khachigian has just signed on to run Dole's California campaign - a signal that Dole is not giving up on California, which he visited May 29.
To look at old documents from the Reagan reelection effort is to see, in a general sense, blueprints for what Clinton's people are trying to do. In November 1983, deputy campaign director Lee Atwater wrote a memo on how to build "an electoral fortress." The departure point was a challenger-free primary season, which presented the campaign with an opportunity to use its considerable war chest to build a strong organization.
"If we put the money into voter registration, local organizing, and some spot media, we can secure our electoral base earlier than any campaign in history," he wrote. "Organizing is crucial for victory."
Ann Lewis, too, stresses the importance of organizing. She speaks of the "coordinated campaign" that's being put together state by state, an effort to make sure voter lists are coordinated and that potential voters are contacted in a systematic fashion. Lewis expects to have state directors of the coordinated campaign in place in about 30 states by June 1. "I know that .... sometimes, ironically, the people who have the most at stake in elections are the most likely to think that politics doesn't really matter in their lives, and we have to make the connection for them," she says. "We have to make it real."