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If Watching a Political Suicide--Stand Back

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP: A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

September 01, 1996|Edward J. Rollins | Edward J. Rollins, a political consultant, served as White House political director from 1981 to 1985 and was campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1984. He is the author, with Tom DeFrank, of "Bare Knuckles and Back Rooms: My Life in American Politics" (Broadway Books)

NEW YORK — There's an old rule in politics: When your opponent is hanging himself, stay away from the rope. Within hours of the blockbuster news of Clinton strategist Dick Morris' resignation, the Dole campaign was faxing statements recounting Bill Clinton's scandals, in an attempt to pour more fuel on the news inferno. As a former campaign pro turned Monday-morning quarterback, I've pondered what I would have counseled Bob Dole if I was in his camp.

As the beneficiary of the news, the Dole campaign should not have been the first to respond. I would have let the story run a bit and waited to see what the other side did. Often the worst mistake campaigns can make is overreacting to breaking news.

Next, I believe the tone of their response was too shrill and beneath Dole. Politics can be a dirty business, and when the mud is flying, you don't want your guy to get soiled. Rehashing all the president's scandals at a time like this is work best left to the press.

In the case of a major fire, arson is always suspected. With the Morris resignation, questions of whether Republicans were behind the story's release are common. While I have no way of knowing if one of his enemies lit the match after Morris doused himself with gasoline, I do know that Morris is one of the most controversial political figures of our time. While he most often sought shelter away from the lights and cameras, he was a tough infighter who earned many enemies in both parties. I can only hope this was the work of tabloid mud-slingers and a money-and-glory-seeking prostitute, and not anyone associated with either party.

While I'm happy for the Dole campaign that their most effective foe is now out of the game, I would advise them to contain their glee. I believe that the Dole-Kemp tax cut and economic growth plan is a great match against an incumbent who raised our taxes, attempted a government takeover of health care and rubber-stamped a bevy of liberal programs and appointees over the course of his first term.

I've always said it was a mistake for the Bush campaign of 1992 to get too close to the character and ethical issues that plagued Clinton. It belittled George Bush, who was a good, honorable man, and did more to undermine the debate on issues that he was best at. If the Dole campaign follows that tack and shepherds the spotlight onto the lapses the Clintons' have had in judgment and ethics over their long career in politics, it will only undermine Dole's efforts to gain acceptance of his economic plan.

Don't get me wrong. I've never been one to stray from a fight or avoid throwing hard punches in politics. Clinton is responsible for all aspects of his record in higher office. Voters are entitled to a full vetting of Clinton's record--including the scandals, probes and clouds that have plagued him. But as distrustful as many in the Republican Party are of the media, in many cases rightly so, that is a job best left to the news people.

I've said that if airlines and car companies attacked each other the way campaigns do, not many people would fly or drive. Imagine Untied or Delta exploiting the crashes of TWA and Valujet. They'd undermine the industry in their pursuit of profit and passengers. The number of people disenchanted with politics and politicians is due, in part, to the sinking of the debate on issues. Yes, negative information works, and voters respond. But the pool of people interested in that information is shrinking--as is voter turnout.

Dole is one of the most ethical and principled officeholders I've ever known. He has done our party great honor as one of its leaders over his many years of public service. If this campaign is decided on leadership and integrity, Dole wins, hands down. And he has done this campaign and the taxpayers a great service by naming my good friend, Jack Kemp, as his running mate and unveiling a bold, responsible and doable tax cut and economic plan.

Most presidential campaigns are decided on economic issues--and the country is still unsure about Clinton's plans. Dole's campaign thus far is on that proper track, and should stay there.

History shows us that Clinton will pay the price for whatever sins Morris may have committed by losing him as a trusted campaign strategist. Just as Michael S. Dukakis never recovered from the loss of political guru John Sasso, in 1988, Clinton may be doomed to a similar fate. Dole and his campaign should let history be their guide and stay away from the ropes now tangling the Clinton campaign.

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