LANSING, MICH. — Richard Nixon, that brass-knuckle politician, often quoted, and lived by, the old axiom that "if you strike a king, be sure you kill him." Here in Michigan, it's being applied by Republican Representative Bill Schuette in his underdog challenge to two-term Democratic Sen. Carl Levin.
While Mr. Levin may not exactly be a king in Michigan politics, he has a longtime reputation for integrity, and Mr. Schuette is taking dead aim at it. As Mr. Nixon liked to point out, the strategy can backfire, but that is not dissuading the young, ambitious Mr. Schuette from pursuing it vigorously.
He has been running television ads seeking to link Mr. Levin to the national savings-and-loan scandal by pairing him with Michigan's other Democratic senator, Donald W. Riegle Jr., one of the "Keating Five" who took large contributions from Charles H. Keating Jr., the central figure in the government's S&L corruption case.
While Mr. Levin has received some contributions from S&L figures, he says he has turned back to the federal Treasury any that have come from individuals working for any firm under federal investigation -- in the neighborhood of $10,000, his campaign manager says.
Although Mr. Levin -- like Mr. Schuette -- has never been accused of any wrongdoing in the S&L crisis, one of Mr. Schuette's ads links him with Mr. Riegle in unspecified "cozy deals [and] the S&L scandals." An avalanche of editorial criticism fell on Mr. Schuette for that ad, and Mr. Levin's managers quickly used excerpts in a television commercial countering that Mr. Schuette in 1987 "voted with the S&Ls to let them pay less to clean up their mess ... and last year, he voted for a bailout scheme that'll cost taxpayers billions more."
With neither Mr. Levin nor Mr. Schuette being accused by S&L investigators of wrongful conduct in the scandal, it can be argued that the whole issue has no place in the Senate campaign -- certainly not in the sledgehammer manner in which Mr. Schuette introduced it in his calculated effort to strike a political king and kill him.
That effort persuaded Mr. Levin to note in a recent television debate that Mr. Schuette had also received contributions "from people who are involved in the S&L scandal, with firms that are ... currently being sued by the government." He challenged Mr. Schuette to follow his example and give all such money to the Treasury, but Mr. Schuette replied that none of it -- about $5,000 -- was from tainted S&L sources.
Mr. Schuette's charges blur basic philosophical differences between the two candidates on government's role and the origins of the crisis that would be a legitimate ground for responsible campaign debate. Some were raised in the televised debate but are not easily shoehorned into a 30-second television commercial.
Mr. Schuette noted that Mr. Levin had not objected when the federal guarantee on individual S&L deposits was increased from $40,000 to $100,000 or when thrifts were authorized to lend for purposes other than homebuilding -- said by many to be actions that opened the door to huge S&L profiteering.
In the same debate, Mr. Levin charged that Mr. Schuette in 1987 sided with the S&L industry that "lobbied furiously" against an effort to bill the industry $15 billion to pay for the S&L cleanup. Mr. Schuette defended his vote on grounds that the money would have been spent "with no safeguards" and would have just meant "a continuation of this S&L scandal."
In the era of the 30-second sound bite, however, the temptation to resort to the broad-brush cheap hit or distortion is irresistible, especially to a candidate seeking to take down an opponent with a strong public reputation, and needing to make up a large
deficit in the polls.
A Detroit News poll earlier this month gave Mr. Levin a 63 percent to 26 percent lead. Six years ago, Mr. Levin had an even larger lead over Republican Jack Lousma at the same stage but won by less than 5 percent. In that race, however, Ronald Reagan headed the GOP ticket and carried Michigan.
Mr. Levin's campaign manager, Gordon Kerr, says he has no plans to use overt negative advertising other than to respond to attacks, but he won't flatly rule it out. The 1988 turn-the-other-cheek mistake of Michael S. Dukakis has not been lost on him.
But Mr. Kerr says he is more than willing to have the campaign waged on his candidate's character. "If we can run the campaign just on the character issue, that would be great." And while he won't get his wish that it will be fought only on Mr. Levin's character, that appears to be a central, long-shot strategy in Mr. Schuette's effort to strike a political king and kill him.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are staff writers for The Evening Sun. Their column appears there Monday through Thursday.