WASHINGTON — Bozo? Has it really come down to this? Is Bob Dole now so desperate that he refers to the president of the United States as a clown? Will the civility of last Sunday's debate disappear at the second presidential debate in San Diego? The answer to all the above is: Yes--with a warning for the Clinton campaign to get ready to rumble.
The reviews of Dole's performance in Hartford are like reviews for a complex off-Broadway drama--glowing but unlikely to sell many tickets. In the aftermath of the debate, Dole was left with a very important, perhaps the most important, decision of his campaign. In the next debate, should he continue the civil discourse on issues or revert to a slash and burn strategy attacking President Bill Clinton's character?
If there is any doubt about which direction Dole has chosen, just listen to the campaign message in the days following the debate. Dole, his surrogates, his advertising all turned up the heat on the president. Whitewater, FBI files, pardons; nothing was off limits. For Clinton the challenge now is how to handle an almost certain barrage of attacks from Dole on Wednesday.
The first thing the president needs to keep in mind is that the burden is squarely on Dole. An attack strategy, particularly for Dole, is fraught with danger. People-meters (those little dials campaign consultants give voters to test the immediate reaction to the debate) used in the first debate showed a consistent negative reaction by voters to anything perceived as an attack from either candidate. When Dole accused Clinton of not addressing George Bush as "Mr. President" in the 1992 debates (hardly a tough hit), the meters all turned negative. If a little ploy like that turns off voters, just think how difficult it will be for Dole to gain points by upping the ante and attacking the president, and, if Whitewater is part of the game plan, his wife, personally. That would be tough enough, even if the voters were in a surly mood, which they are not.
But Dole really has no choice. If he does not attack on Wednesday, then he has decided he cannot win and wants history to judge him as a serious man who genuinely wanted to debate issues of importance to his country. But I doubt Dole will do that. He has tried far too long, and at great cost, to win the presidency, and he will convince himself against all odds that he still can win. They all do.
So Clinton must respond to Dole quietly but firmly and, above all, truthfully. None of those allegations, from Whitewater to FBI files, have hurt Clinton so far and there is no reason they should now. What could hurt the president is if the public perceives he is not answering Dole's charges as truthfully as he can. Clinton is suspect when it comes to truth telling, and he should do nothing to fuel the fire.
On Whitewater, tell it like it is. A bad and sloppy business deal that he and his wife wished they had never gotten into. But remember, after years of investigation by prosecutors and the Congress, no real evidence connects the president or first lady to illegal acts. On travelgate, say it like it is. We didn't handle it well. And he, the president, should have been more involved. The involvement of Harry Thomason was just dumb. On D. Craig Livingstone: wrong guy for the job, a huge mistake, and what happened was inexcusable. But Clinton must say he and his staff have learned a lesson from mistakes like these and will not make them again.
And for the toughest one off all, the pardon of the McDougals--Jim doesn't deserve one but Susan probably does. But they were the president's business partners and any pardon will be forever suspect. As tough as it is, Mr. President, when it comes to pardoning the McDougalls, just say no.