FEATURE: VIEW FROM THE TOP - Dick Morris. Return of the spin king - Ex-Clinton confidante and PA stalwart Dick Morris believes technology will transform political campaigning

Every day is election day for Dick Morris. Both the veteran US public affairs man's view of modern campaigning and his current occupation confirm this fact. The long-time adviser to Bill Clinton on polling and communications issues is now running an operation he confidently proclaims to be at the vanguard of modern practice on elections and electoral strategy - Vote.com.

Every day is election day for Dick Morris. Both the veteran US public affairs man's view of modern campaigning and his current occupation confirm this fact. The long-time adviser to Bill Clinton on polling and communications issues is now running an operation he confidently proclaims to be at the vanguard of modern practice on elections and electoral strategy - Vote.com.

This site (also at Vote.co.uk) is an experiment in on-line democracy which, if successful, will fundamentally change the way political campaigns are fought.

Morris was a close confidante to Clinton for almost 20 years. With just a few years off in the middle, he advised the Arkansas governor and latterly White House incumbent from 1977 until 1996.

The final hurrah came four years ago after the Republican rout in 1994's congressional elections led Clinton to recall his trusted aide for his presidential re-election bid against Bob Dole in 1996.

Morris eventually paid the ultimate professional price for a tawdry scandal involving escort girls in the Jefferson hotel near the White House, resigning as chief strategist after his penchant for prostitutes entered the public domain. Until that moment, his ability to immediately understand the public mood was highly valued in both the Oval Office and the Democratic National Committee.

He is widely credited with turning around Clinton's depressing polling figures in time for the November 1996 presidential run-off, which saw Clinton comfortably returned for a second term. Morris' talent for spin, understanding the public mood and influencing the political decision-makers so much that significant policy changes came about on his say-so is well understood. Not for nothing did TIME magazine call him 'the most influential private citizen in America'.



Consensus building and spin

There is a handful of US political strategists whose PR skills have impressed New Labour so much that they were brought over to help in its 1997 general election campaign. Of the highly-rated triumvirate of James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Dick Morris, it is the latter who, as Clinton's valued behind-the-scenes sidekick, achieved most in US political life.

Among his achievements is the coinage of the term 'triangulation', to describe a mixture of consensus building and spin. 'Some people get triangulation wrong,' he says, referring to critics who identify the practice as a cross between selling out your principles and bluffing the public. 'Some see it as bifurcation - take the left, take the right and split the difference.

It's not that. It's about combining the best of both the left and the right. From the left you take a strong position on gun control. From the right you take a strong position on mandatory jail sentences for criminals.

Triangulation combines them in an effective crime control strategy. It's not a recipe for moderation. It's a recipe for combining left and right to a third place that's above the mid section, not buried in it.' Unstintingly visionary or classic spin? Let's triangulate - a bit of both probably.

As the US struggles with post-election confusion and the candidates' legal teams work to exploit every possible avenue that might help them take over at Pennsylvania Avenue early next year, Morris paid a visit to the UK. He was in London to present the Channel 4 political magazine show Power House, as well as to drum up support for his on-line voting venture.

With the cocksure demeanour of someone used to being listened to - and the compelling hard-edged voice of US politics - Morris has more than one word of advice for the UK's public affairs campaigners. While it is advice many would claim to have taken to heart already, Morris is insistent it must now be applied across the board.



Populism and public approval

'We are undergoing a shift where it is no longer as important to lobby above as to lobby below. It's not nearly as important to look up at Congress or Parliament and present your case to each member of each party as it is to look down and present your case to the people,' he says. 'Lobbyists who used to focus on the tools of quiet influence need to readjust their focus to win public majorities for the positions they hold. To use a metaphor, they need to shine their sun down on the water and evap-orate the water to seed the clouds.'

Many in the UK public affairs and government communications sectors would consider this much to be plain sailing. But Morris takes his point further, boldly stating: 'I think the era where we elect politicians for fixed terms of office and watch them govern from afar before judging them, when they come back to see us four or five years later, has ended. Every day is election day. You need a majority every day and if you ever lose that you are functionally out of office,' he says. While in literal terms this is not the case, one only has to think back to the dying days of John Major's Conservative administration to realise that he has a point.

The implications of this theorising about the state of modern democracies for political PR are profound. The relentless quest for public approval cannot - for a mixture of financial and technical reasons - be fought through advertising, and there are clearly not enough people involved in any political party's project to proselytise 51 per cent of the population one at a time. This leaves what Morris calls 'earned media,' or what everyone else identifies as one branch of public relations.

His comments are especially timely since at the time of writing it is, he stresses, a very real possibility that a man will be elected leader of the US on a minority of votes cast. This, I cheerily impart, happens every single time over here but Morris maintains that in order to achieve anything in office other than simply being in office 'you have to get your poll numbers above 50 per cent or you can may be able to put your hand on the bible and the other hand in the air but you won't ever really take office'. This uncompromisingly populist stance has won Morris some stern critics, but it has also won him some powerful friends.



Incessant campaigning

Morris' perception of British political campaigning centres on the tendency of its protagonists to mimic the most successful aspects of US political communications. 'I think British campaigns are becoming both more personal - in the sense that it's very much Hague against Blair now rather than the Tories against Labour - and longer. We can increasingly see in the UK what we call 'the permanent campaign', where the tools of winning office - polling, soundbites, message manipulation - are now the daily tools of government as well. The tradition that you had someone in office who paid no attention to 'politics' then every couple of years went out to get their hands dirty working in an election is over. You have to campaign constantly,' he says.

Purists who think this sullies the sanctity of ideology and its transformation into policy can be safely confirmed in the view that this is a hugely self-serving argument. As founder and president of Vote.com, it is clearly in Morris' interests to propagate the view that politics needs to be a constant process.

As well as carrying out daily opinion polls (on self-selecting sample groups), Vote.com makes the additional link of especial value to lobbyists - it sends the results of its surveys to the politicians. A particular favourite of Morris' from recent weeks focused on fuel excise duty. On the controversial issue of the autumn, he is typically forthright: 'The fuel tax issue will explode in the Government's face. It is just the kind of issue that upscale white collar government types don't get, but working-class types who have to drive to work do.

The polls are consistently showing the people going one way and the government going the other. They hate this form of social engineering which says 'we're going to take money from you we never planned on, we don't need and we can't spend, and we will only give it back to you if you jump through this flaming hoop and buy a type of gasoline we want.' This drives voters crazy. If you think Brown's wrong, vote for that on Vote.com and we'll e-mail your view to the Chancellor.'

As the internet grows in importance, the art of communicating to news web sites will be refined and the established methods of PR for paper and tape hacks will recede in value. The UK already has countless news sites, though at present most repackage news generated from original journalism within newspapers and broadcast media. It is Morris' firm view that this has to change. Sites such as ePolitix.com, YOUGOV.com and his own are all swinging the balance in favour of the internet news media.



Enhancing direct democracy

This is, Morris claims, in part a reflection of the changes in technology usage - the percentage of people watching primetime television in the US has been cut by two thirds since 1990, while the percentage using the internet during primetime is now over 20 per cent, from zero ten years ago. As the US goes, you can bet, so goes the UK a few years from now.

In addition to improving the communications techniques for the different media targeted, PROs also have to be more creative in their integration of methods for doing the communicating, Morris argues: 'With Clinton we worked hard on integrating paid media and earned media. We tried to make it one seamless web. Advertising has become of more tactical than strategic use in recent years and has been a tool in the daily press battle, going over the heads of the press, speaking directly to the people.'

Morris' major concern is no longer managing the direct daily tactics of government PR. He still acts as an adviser to various governments on a freelance basis, including, recently, that of Argentine president Fernando de la Rua. Despite his only intermittent connection with the 'constant campaigning,' he has so made his own, improving systems of communication with the aim of achieving political goals is still at the heart of what he does.

It is inspiring to hear him talk of the emergence of mechanisms capable of delivering direct democracy.

Where apparent apathy among publics has rendered much of contemporary political life a no-go area for most in the West, his invoking of the ideals of Thomas Jefferson as the spur to creating new ways of influencing government is massively refreshing.

It maybe the redemption he needs after being reduced to something of a joke in certain circles over his sordid private life.



WORDS ON DICK MORRIS

'Mr Morris speaks and writes in such never-ending streams of soundbites that one must be wary of being seduced' - Sion Simon, New Labour commentator



'The most influential private citizen in America' - TIME magazine



'Mr Morris' influence was detected in Blair's disastrous Women's Institute speech' - James Langton, Sunday Telegraph



'He has seen Washington behind closed doors like no other' - Fergus Sheppard, ITN



CLASSIC DICK MORRIS SOUNDBITES

'It is a principle of politics not to get nailed over strong popular feeling. Make your peace with the public and live to fight another day.'



'Bill (Clinton) would rather have been a political consultant than a candidate. I used to wear nice crocodile shoes, because I hate crocodiles, and I'd walk in and Bill'd look down and say 'if I was a political consultant do you think I could wear shoes like that?'. Now he's Hillary's consultant, he can.'



'In the US we are becoming increasingly like the British. Rebels who leave their party whip and vote with the other side are becoming increasingly rare and party line votes increasingly common. In fact, the configuration of the US Congress, which is a horseshoe, is increasingly becoming de facto redesigned into two opposing benches, as in the House of Commons'.



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