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His Back to the Wall, Dole Gets Ugly--Again

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

September 29, 1996|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — Presidential campaigns seem to bring out the worst in people, and this is especially true of Bob Dole. Watching him reminds me of why Dole is a two-time, going on three-time loser in the big arena of presidential politics. When Dole's back is to the wall, he turns dark and vicious--almost as if he can't help himself. His latest assault on the Clinton White House, essentially suggesting that the president himself is responsible for the increase in teenage drug use, is a case in point.

A little history: In 1976, as Gerald R. Ford's vice-presidential candidate, Dole, in a debate with Walter F. Mondale, referred to wars in this century as Democrat wars! He included in this indictment World War II, where Dole himself was severely wounded. In his acceptance speech last month in San Diego, the Democrat World War II gave way to an emotional remembrance of the blood of blacks and whites being indistinguishable on the field of battle. I guess Dole believes color doesn't matter in war, only party identification.

Then in 1988, when George Bush beat Dole in the New Hampshire primary, Dole went on national television telling Bush to stop lying about his record--a comment so full of venom that it haunted Dole for weeks. Sure, the Bush campaign hit Dole hard, but that's the nature of the business. It seems Dole's dismal 1988 performance had nothing to do with his awful campaign operation or his own terrible campaign appearances. No, Dole's loss was all because people lied about him. Been there. Done that.

And now, in a new low, even by Dole standards, comes the GOP nominee's desperate attack on Clinton over drugs. Dole seized on a federal report that showed an increase in drug use among teenagers--including a doubling of cocaine use and a substantial increase in the use of marijuana. What he didn't say was that the survey of Americans, done every two years, interviewed 2,500 teens. In the last poll, 14 kids said they had used cocaine in 1994. In 1996, 30 said they used cocaine--16 more kids, hardly a sample size that confirms a doubling in use.

The report did show an alarming increase in the use of marijuana. What Dole failed to say in suggesting Clinton's culpability is that a similar survey of teenagers done in Canada showed the same increase. Dole must believe that Clinton, on state visits to Canada, sells massive amounts of reefer from the cargo hold of Air Force One. What Dole also failed to mention is the generally accepted position of experts in the field: that marijuana use among baby-boomer children has much to do with boomers' own lax attitudes toward the use of marijuana--since many of them used the drug themselves when they were teenagers.

But no matter how disgraceful Dole's performance, the Clinton campaign needs to pay attention. Dole's McCarthy-like tactics could get traction with voters who feel drugs and crime are the most important issues facing the country, and there are a lot of them. Couple these fears with a general feeling that Clinton was lax in his own condemnation of drug use in a 1992 MTV appearance, now included in a vicious Dole ad, and you have a potential problem for the president.

So far, the Clinton team has responded quickly and effectively with their own ad attacking Dole for voting for cuts in drug enforcement, prevention and treatment, and also voting to abolish the office of the drug czar. Clinton's team should keep running this ad frequently for as long as the issue is alive--even if that means till Election Day.

Clinton himself should also consider confronting Dole on drugs in the debates. He should display indignation that Dole would stoop so low as to suggest his complicity in teen drug use. My guess is that even though the Dole camp will anticipate this, Dole will not handle it well. Clinton needs to force Dole to be specific or apologize. Dole can't do either.

So as we enter the final five weeks of the presidential campaign, we bear witness to the self-immolation of Dole, a man who heretofore has had a deserved reputation as a patriotic public servant. Had Dole not run for president, history would have treated him as one of the most influential and powerful leaders in the history of the U.S. Senate. Instead, if he keeps up these disgraceful attacks, he'll be marked as another disgraced public figure who loved to slander people--Roy Cohn. It is sad to think Dole could come to the end of his public life with a renewed image as a hatchet man when he could have been compared to Daniel Webster.

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