Dick Morris's The New Prince
Machiavelli Updated For The Twenty-First Century
11.01.99 | reviewed by Jonathan Chait
Here are some of the chapter headings in Dick Morris's latest book: Issues over Image, Strategy over Spin, Generosity over Self-Interest, Racism Doesn't Work. No, really. Dick Morris, inventor of triangulation, who advised President Clinton to alter his vacation plans on the basis of polling data, and who was forced out of politics for sucking a call girl's toes, has now decided to reincarnate himself as David Broder. What we had long mistaken for conniving, scheming, and duplicity, Morris assures us, was actually his sincere effort to make the world a better place. As Morris explains it, "If American politicians were truly pragmatic and did what was really in their own best self-interest, our political process would be a lot more clean, positive, nonpartisan, and issue oriented... If Machiavelli were alive today, he would counsel idealism as the most pragmatic course."
Well, that depends on how one defines "idealism." To Morris, idealism means eschewing ideologically faithful members of one's own party to craft deals with the opposition, adopting your opponent's most popular positions as your own, and taking care at all times to maintain a 50-percent approval rating. ("When [the president] dips below 50 percent," Morris asserts, "he is functionally out of office.")
Some politicians come to this particular brand of idealism more easily than others, as Morris recognizes. Using the pseudoscientific methodology that predominates throughout the book, he classifies elected officials into two categories. "Ideological stalwarts"- the first kind- "march to the beat of their own drummers and value consistency above compromise, purity above pragmatism." Needless to say, Morris finds these types distasteful. The other type, however, "are more interested in achieving something, getting reelected, and moving ahead." This is the good type of politician, whom Morris dubs, in an unfortunate turn of phrase, "men of affairs." Morris and Clinton are men of affairs.
Morris has an interesting definition of idealism: if this is principle, just imagine how a cynical politician would behave.
The most credible argument for Morris-style politics is half-a-loaf pragmatism: sure, you can stand by your beliefs in their purest form, but then you'll lose, and the policies that result will be worse than compromise. But Morris doesn't make this argument. As one proceeds through this small sausage of a book, it becomes horrifyingly clear that Morris believes his kind of politics is idealism because he cannot even conceive of any purpose for governing beyond power as an end in itself. He is not writing against the conventional notion of idealism; rather, he is writing in complete ignorance of it.
A good deal of the book is taken up with Morris's rage at the economists and wonks within the White House who battled with him to shape Clinton's policies. It is easy to see why such people infuriated Morris; arguments about the merits of policy seem to baffle him. A longstanding goal during his tenure as Clinton's advisor was to cut the tax on capital gains: this, Morris believed, would bolster Clinton's tax-cutting credentials and allow a deal with congressional Republicans. In the end, that's what happened- in the form of the 1997 budget deal- but only after a (to Morris) annoyingly protracted internal debate. "Liberals argued that it was important to maintain the [capital gains] tax," he recalled in his memoir Behind the Oval Office: Getting Reelected Against All Odds, "but I never really grasped why."
In Morris's telling of his White House tenure, he is constantly brainstorming brilliant new policy innovations, only to be assailed with pointless objections by number-crunching bureaucrats. The logic of Morris's proposals is supposed to be self-evident- tax cuts for the elderly, for instance. (If you reacted to that last one by wondering why tax cuts for the elderly are justified or how they would work, then you're not thinking like Dick Morris). You can easily picture some earnest Brookings-type delicately trying to explain in slow, patient tones some of the programmatic and theoretical barriers to Morris's latest scheme, and Morris staring back vacantly, as if he were being jabbered at in Swahili.
Perhaps Morris's greatest triumph has been to win nearly universal acclaim for his intelligence, even among those who find him morally repugnant- "a gleeful genius," as Time puts it. The assumption seems to be that anybody this diabolical must also be brilliant. Read Dick Morris's books and you'll know better.