Politics

Hack in Business

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Dick Morris has never been afraid to test the limits of opportunism. Back in 1994, while working as a political consultant for Republican clients like Trent Lott, he was caught secretly counseling their chief nemesis, President Bill Clinton. Three years later, after his toe-sucking adventures with a prostitute had brought an abrupt end to his stint as a White House adviser, Morris figured the time was right to pen a self-serving memoir, Behind the Oval Office, in which he took credit for everything from suggesting Al Gore as Clinton’s veep pick to helping seal the Dayton Peace Accords.

So it was hardly surprising when, the day after the 2010 midterms, Morris, who is now a TV analyst at Fox News, claimed that he’d been indispensable to the Republican landslide. In a thank-you note sent to his 1.7-million-member e-mail list, Morris insisted that the GOP’s House majority would be a full “five to ten” seats smaller had it not been for his tireless efforts.

As is so often the case with Morris, this claim requires some scrutiny. Yes, Morris did do consulting work with 28 winning Republican campaigns, while his Super PAC steered funds to an additional 23 Republicanseleven of whom prevailed. And, to be fair, he also indirectly inspired businessman Ron Johnson to run against, and eventually unseat, Senator Russ Feingold. (“I was sitting at home watching Fox News,” Johnson recalled, “and Dick Morris came on and said, ‘Hey, you know, Feingold is vulnerable. You know, if you’re a rich guy from Wisconsin, step up to the plate.’”)

But when it came to Morris’s signature effort, Project 100, the payoff was decidedly mixed. In the run-up to the election, most Republican strategists believedrightly, as it turned outthat the party had a good shot at about 60 House seats. Morris, however, was convinced that a much, much larger number was up for grabs, including many solidly Democratic districts. For Morris, the lack of evidence that these races were worth contesting only confirmed his theory: “Nobody considered them in play enough to poll them.” And so he called on his supporters to donate $20 million in just four weeks before the election to spend in these marginal districts. (Never mind that it would be difficult to disburse so much money so quickly.) As November approached, Morris was frantically trying to convince Fox viewers that secure Democrats like Barney Frank and Steny Hoyer were vulnerablethat is, as long as people sent money to Morrisaffiliated PACs. “We’re knocking off a lot of pawns,” he explained on a late September edition of “Fox & Friends.” “Let’s go for some rooks, castles, and bishops.” In the end, conventional wisdom was right, and he was wrong: Many of the safe Democrats he had targeted won reelection easily. In fact, the bulk of Morris’s election work seemed to be little more than an extended exercise in conning his devoted viewers and followers to send him money.

Fox turned out to be a perfect fit for Morris. He could make the sort of wildly off-base claims he was famous for as a consultant, only no one would remember if, say, he predicted, on the eve of the 2000 election, that Hillary Clinton would lose her Senate race (she did not) or claimed that Arkansas was “leaning Obama” in 2008 (the state went for McCain by 20 points). A few months into Obama’s presidency, however, Morris branched out from wrongheaded prognostications and into the outlandish conspiracy theories that were then fueling the nascent Tea Party movement. On Fox, he declared that “those crazies in Montana who say, ‘We’re going to kill ATF agents because the U.N.’s going to take over’well, they’re beginning to have a case.” He pushed the rumor that House Democrat Eric Massa, who was under investigation for sexual harassment, was being targeted as retaliation for voting against health care reform.

Before long, Morris had mastered the art of being a Tea Party celebrity. In the past year, he’s appeared at several events sponsored by the right-wing astroturf group Americans for Prosperityand far from trying to hide the fact that he helped Clinton beat back the conservative tide in the 1990s, he revels in it. “There’s going to be a government shutdown, just like in ’95 and ’96,” he told one raucous crowd in Washington, D.C. “And we’re going to win it this time, and I’m going to be fighting on your side!” At one rally in West Virginia, stumping for Republican House candidate David McKinley, he regaled the crowd with dry polling analysis (“We’re seven points ahead in Washington state ... ”), and, just as the attendees started to doze off, cracked a joke about how Russ Feingold was “unable to find [a safe district to represent] outside of Havana and Caracas.”

It’s possible that the socialist excesses of the Obama administration finally sent Morris over the edge. But perhaps a more plausible explanation is that he’s culling a loyal fan base to whom he can market his growing business empire. In late September, in a brief fiveminute stint on “The Sean Hannity Show,” Morris managed to direct viewers to his own website, dickmorris.com, then to a PAC he was affiliated with, AmericansForNewLeadership.com, and, before Hannity could interrupt, he implored the audience to see his new documentary, Battle for America. (The film, which sells for $19.95, features interviews with sober analysts like Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, and Lou Dobbs about how Obama is ravaging America, and is punctuated with images of post-apocalyptic landscapesMorris called it “the WMD of this election.”)

Morris often uses his TV appearances to drum up business for his consulting endeavors. During the health care debate, he would beg people to donate, with pleas like, “We’ve got to stop them. Go to my website and look up how to contribute to run these ads.” (In October 2009, Morris claimed to have raised $2.5 million for his anti-reform push.) At other times, his rainmaking will take more subtle forms, as when he touts the work of political groups like the League of American Votersoften forgetting to mention that these groups pay him to cut ads. It’s difficult to trace how much money Morris rakes in, all told, though one group he has hyped repeatedly, GOPTrust.com, has paid Morris’s consulting firm at least $24,000 for communications work. (Morris did not respond to an interview request.)

At times, Morris’s entrepreneurial activities can reach levels of tawdriness that are stunning even for him. As Media Matters has documented, the conservative website Newsmax pays Morris to shill for dubious financial consulting services on his e-mail list (which he builds through Fox appearances). For the low, low price of $1,495, Morris alerts his followers, they can purchase the “Money Matrix Insider,” which includes instructional DVDs and pointers on how to survive the next financial crisis. Likewise, for $1,295, subscribers can get stock tips from an analyst billed as the “private financial weapon” of Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy. For those short on cash, Morris has flagged books like Aftershock: Protect Yourself and Profit in the Next Global Financial Meltdown, which advises readers to dump all their stocks and U.S. bonds and buy up gold. And, in his e-mails and TV appearances, Morris makes sure to give his followers plenty of reason to panic, noting that Democratic policies will produce “massive inflation, even hyperinflation,” although few economists think such a scenario is likely in the near future.

During the 1990s, after Morris’s covert consulting for Bill Clinton was revealed, his biggest conservative supporters were appalled by his shamelessness. But that didn’t stop Morris. He just moved on and found a bigger sucker: the audience of Fox News. Still, even his colleagues sometimes seem taken aback by his appetite for self-promotion. In July, “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade mocked a recent Morris appearance: “And the third part of Dick Morris’s analysis was, ‘Buy my book, go to my website.’” Morris was no doubt just grateful for the plug.

Bradford Plumer is assistant editor at The New Republic. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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