White House in chaos — what's new?

White House in chaos — what's new?
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The president decided the entire White House staff was working against him, running their own agenda, not his or that of the nation. Poll ratings had plummeted, with job approval in the 30s. Leaks were a common occurrence as staffers hyped their own policy positions, even brazenly floating them in trial balloons. The president was on edge, feeling helpless amid the chaos. His reelection looked like a fantasy. There was an independent counsel investigation examining all his business dealings. The attorney general was cursed all day long inside the White House for a crazy investigation. Even the first lady faced a grand jury.

In response, the president convened covert meetings in the White House residence at night with outsiders during which the real policy and communications decisions were made, bypassing most of the official government operations. Big decisions like announcing a balanced budget and going after the tobacco industry were made in secret, with staff mystified where it was all coming from. Almost the entire White House staff would eventually be turned over. Bob Woodward would later write a book describing what the Washington Post reviewer called a “chaotic” decision making process by a volatile president with frequent “temper tantrums” who was an “indecisive” chief executive.


2018? No. This was 1995. On a good day, the White House is a totally crazy place with swirling intrigue, backstabbing, leaks, and books by departing staffers. The stakes are the highest in the world and so, typically, are the tensions. Many of the staff have ideological agendas and have been raised entirely in politics, often coming from Capitol Hill with little experience outside of government. George Stephanopoulos published a memoir on his political education with the Clintons, calling it “All Too Human,” that depicted his work as too many lies and too much chaos.

History has an uncanny way of repeating itself. Aides have felt they know better than their leaders since Joseph and the Pharaoh. “Anonymous” in the New York Times believes he knows better how to run the country than our elected leadership. New presidents, particularly outsiders, face a hostile and controlling group of Washington elites who believe they own the place over mere elected officials who come and go. Arriving from Arkansas, the Clintons were as alien to Washington as the Trumps. They faced many of the same problems of runaway staff, investigations, and chaos in the White House. Instead of CNN and MSNBC, they soon would battle a Fox News channel that aimed to set their hair on fire daily.

Clinton’s reaction, after disastrous midterms, was to take back his White House from his left-leaning staff, bringing on a new team to help move him back to the center. He made deals with the new Republican majority on welfare reform, a balanced budget and immigration reform. While triangulating in the Beltway, he reached out to the broad swath of America that wanted an end to partisan rancor and to get things done. He chose pragmatism over ideology, and so did the public. The result was the last sustained period of unity, peace, and prosperity in our nation.

Trump today finds himself in much the same place as Clinton in 1995. His poll numbers may be a bit higher, and prosperity came sooner in his term, but Trump is likely also facing a change of Congress and perhaps a repeat of the 1998 impeachment battle. He has a solid base with Republican and working class voters but has alienated a lot of Americans in the center, making it impossible in the current environment for him to put together a majority coalition. As problems have mounted, his instincts have led him to reinforce the 46 percent base that voted for him. Clinton, who was elected with 41 percent in 1992, reached higher to expand his base.

Today, the public has a 60 percent negative view of the Republican Party, a 58 percent negative view of the Democratic Party, and a 54 percent negative view of the president, according to the last Harvard Harris poll. Despite the vast 70 percent of Americans who believe the economy is growing stronger, no political figure in either party owns the vital and decisive center of the electorate the way Clinton did in the late 1990s.

Clinton made the right, if unorthodox, choices when confronted with a narrowing political funnel. Trump has retreated to familiar territory and rallies in safe states. Policies like infrastructure have languished while immigration and trade continue at the forefront. There is no evidence that he, nor top Democrats, realize that this remains a centrist country looking not just for economic success but for leadership that brings a majority of the country together for a higher common purpose.

Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a private equity firm specializing in marketing services companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He served as pollster and adviser to President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.