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Attack Memo Had To Be OK'd by Higher-ups

DECODING THE CAMPAIGN. Another in a series of articles critiquing the '92 presidential strategies

August 09, 1992|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a policy analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — The nasty memo about Bill Clinton from Bush campaign political director Mary Matalin has dominated political coverage for a week. Analysts tell us it has backfired miser ably on the Bush campaign. Maybe, maybe not.

I know Mary Matalin, Mary Matalin is a friend of mine; that wasn't Mary Matalin's memo. Is she capable of being that tough? Sure. She is also much too smart to have handed the Clinton campaign the anti-sleaze issue this early. What gives?

First, a memo as explosive as that had to be cleared by the top brass of the campaign. No political director in any presidential campaign I have been around would have the authority to release that kind of attack unilaterally. If he or she did, he or she would be gone--and certainly not have the "full confidence of the President." So, the big boys knew and approved, maybe even had a hand in writing it.

But it doesn't matter who wrote the memo, but rather what it says about the George Bush-Dan Quayle reelection effort. They are frustrated, flailing and without a clue as to what to do. Except one. To cut Clinton to shreds on the character issue. The problem is everyone knows, especially the press, this is the only way Bush can get reelected. These are not the halcyon days of '88, when the press and pundits stood by as Michael S. Dukakis was keelhauled. Call it guilt over missing the story in '88, or just increased awareness of sleaze tactics by the press--it doesn't matter. It won't work this time.

The Bush team knows all this, of course, which makes this latest ham-handed effort to attack Clinton look even dumber than it is. Would it rekindle questions about Clinton? Some. Will it make future, more subtle attacks less obvious? Probably. Will it be an early enough warning about what they can get away with to avoid embarrassment in the fall? Certainly. Will it be a factor in the outcome of the election? Absolutely not.

But the memo has accomplished something the Clinton campaign should be concerned about. This will mark the low point of the Bush campaign. Everyone--press, pundits, average voters--will tell you that Bush and his campaign are in serious, if not terminal, condition: The gang that can't do anything right. A President more proficient at vomiting than fixing the economy. In other words, expectations for Bush are at an all-time low just before his convention.Weak, wimpy, not a leader. Sounds eerily like the rap on Bush just before his '88 convention. Then he exceeded expectations--the single most important goal of a presidential campaign--and got on a roll. My guess is that he will this time, too. Not quite as big as '88, but a roll, nonetheless.

The Clinton people know the luxury of having low expectations and complete control of a national convention. When Clinton went to New York, the public didn't expect much. But when he picked Sen. Al Gore and gave a good speech, he vastly exceeded expectations and hit it out of the park. If Clinton's expectations were low then, Bush's are almost laughable now. And it's time for his four days in the sun, while his team has a hammerlock on the convention.

So, expect a good show from Bush and his people in Houston. They do conventions well, and Bush has a history of rising to important occasions. Expect Clinton's lead to shrink dramatically, maybe even to single digits. Expect the press to report that Bush has begun to turn the corner. Expect that James A. Baker III will be there to take credit for the turnaround. Most important, expect this to be a very close election, and expect the outcome to be decided by two or three debates.

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