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Quiet Those Drips of Ever-Growing Scandal

Campaign Roadmap: A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

July 07, 1996|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

JACKSON HOLE, WYO. — Drip. Drip. Drip. An old faucet outside my window here drips into a metal can. Each drip gets louder as the bucket fills. Driving me crazy. First thought: Time to fix the faucet. Second thought: Those drips seem a metaphor for the state of the Clinton presidency these past two weeks. Whitewater trial I--drip; new travel office documents--drip; FBI files--drip; Anthony Marceca takes the Fifth--drip; no one admits to hiring White House security officer D. Craig Livingstone--drip. You could hardly hear those first few drips, but like the bucket under my window, the more drips, the louder the noise. For the White House, it's time to stop the drips (unlikely) or empty the bucket.

As to stopping the drips--easier said than done. There are just too many questions, too many documents and too many partisan congressional commit-tees and special prosecutors to fix all these problems quickly. As a friend in the White House says, you can't just ignore the collective mess. But the White House can take steps to empty the bucket and quiet the dripping. It's time to get back on message and off the defensive.

The first step in getting off the defensive has already been gift wrapped and handed to President Bill Clinton by Bob Dole himself last week. For whatever inexorable reason, Dole again rose to the defense of the tobacco industry--even suggesting tobacco may not be addictive to some people. Go figure.

Dole campaign operatives are apoplectic and I sympathize. I remember too well, in 1984, when Walter F. Mondale, after being labeled the candidate of big labor, was asked to name one thing he disagreed with unions on. He couldn't come up with anything--except something about not wanting to pick on your friends.

Maybe after all these years of support from the tobacco industry, Dole feels obligated to treat them kindly. Whatever the reason, he has handed the Clinton campaign an unbelievable gift. And it isn't only the obvious political downside of being associated with tobacco, but also the clear implication that the reason Dole protects tobacco is all the money the industry has given him over the years.

Hence, the second opening for Clinton. After more than 35 years in Congress, Dole has probably received more special-interest money than any politician around. If he will stand by tobacco, who else has he delivered for over the years with votes and influence in Congress? It's in the record, stupid. Go for it.

Next step for the Clinton team to quiet the dripping is to deal better with the noise. They need a new voice to counter the GOP charges. White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry has been beaten down in his efforts to spin the various problems. Ann Lewis, communications director of the Clinton-Gore Reelection Committee, has done it so much that she is burned out. Democratic National Committee Co-Chairs Christopher J. Dodd and Donald Fowler are just too political. The Clinton team needs a senior person with impeccable credentials to answer the attacks. Warren Christopher, if he were a private citizen, would be perfect: good character, scholarly, great legal credentials and, most important, press and opinion-maker respectability.

Retiring Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) or Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) would be perfect, but they wouldn't do it. One, it's not their style, and two (and this is a real recruitment problem), neither is sure there is not a smoking gun somewhere--and they aren't about to get caught in the cross-fire if there is. But there must be someone of standing who believes a Clinton second term is important enough to take the risks. One idea: Bring George J. Mitchell back from Ireland, quick.

Step three is by far the most important and, ironically, the easiest for Clinton to quiet the sound of the drips: Take the campaign dialogue back to a higher level--where it belongs. Talk about the economy (you've already won this one); national security; social and medical security; good future jobs for our kids--and put it right to Dole and the GOP in a centerpiece speech:

"You Republicans are wallowing in the muck of character assassination because you have nothing to say and nothing to offer but a 73-year-old candidate who is ignored when he talks about the future. The economy is strong and the budget deficit shrinking and you, elephant man, mumble still about cutting rich people's taxes and supply-side junk."

Let me play speech writer for a moment. How about if the president says: "Let the investigations go forward and I will continue to cooperate, but let's get to the big issues. People want to know about our plans to protect their economic security and not my plans to leave the White House without secret service protection. They want to know about job security, not a faulty security office in the White House. It all comes down to one message this year, my loyal Republican opponents: It's about the economy, stupid."

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