WASHINGTON -- As President Bush keeps dropping in the polls, the negative tactics that the Bush campaign used successfully against Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 are being trotted out again.
That is so despite the president's saying he wants no part of campaign "sleaze." He says he has so ordered all his associates -- as if he didn't dish it out himself in 1988 in playing on racial fears with the Willie Horton prison furlough story and painting Dukakis as less than patriotic.
Bush's chief campaign aides, too, insist they have no intention of going after Bill Clinton personally, and specifically not on the charges first raised in the primaries of womanizing and draft-dodging. James Lake, the Bush-Quayle communications director, says the campaign had nothing to do with circulation or exploitation of the Gennifer Flowers allegations and will not.
Lake, sensitive to the possibility that after all the criticism generated by the Willie Horton story there could be a voter backlash this year against similar Bush campaign tactics, vows that the campaign will limit itself to attacking Clinton's record as governor of Arkansas, and his economic proposals. If the Willie Horton approach is used, he says, "we lose."
Bush himself has abstained so far from any serious negative assault on Clinton. But the same can't be said for two prominent surrogates, Sen. Jake Garn of Utah and Vice President Dan Quayle. Each has recently taken a shot at Clinton's behavior toward the draft during the Vietnam war, and Quayle has also said that Clinton's "character" will be targeted. Garn suggested that the only reason Clinton didn't duck out to Canada was because "he was thinking of his future political career." Quayle, who himself went into the Indiana National Guard rather than risk being sent to Vietnam, speculated that Sen. Al Gore, a Vietnam veteran, was put on the Democratic ticket "to shore up Bill Clinton's inadequacies" on military service. Clinton, opposed to American involvement in the war, successfully shielded himself from the draft until he eventually put himself back in the draft pool, but never got called up.
Lake says, however, that there probably isn't much political mileage in criticizing Clinton's draft record because "an awful lot of people of that generation were sympathetic to [Clinton's] view." What is fair game, he says, is Clinton's record of nearly 12 years as governor of Arkansas, just as Bush's record in the White House is a valid issue.
Within that context, though, it is clear that at least indirectly the Bush campaign fully intends to exploit the personal baggage that Clinton carries into the fall campaign. Lake observes that the voters already know all they need to know about that personal baggage, and that such knowledge will inevitably come into play when they vote.
"We don't have to raise the so-called character issues," he says, because the voters "on their own accord will pull up perceptions" about Clinton that have been created by the earlier allegations of personal misconduct. The question voters will ask themselves then, Lake says, will be: "Can I believe this guy? Who can I trust more?"
Thus, while the old womanizing and draft-dodging charges against Clinton have been out of the news for at least three months, the Bush campaign obviously hopes that voters will remember them in judging the Arkansas governor's credibility compared to that of the president.
One obvious problem with basing the election's outcome on the voters' view of which candidate can be trusted more is that perhaps the single most damaging rap heard against Bush from voters is that he broke his no-new-taxes pledge, and hence can't be trusted.
Still, the Bush campaign hopes that the president's foreign-policy leadership will be a deciding factor on the trust issue. There, too, however, effective political use of his foreign policy is undermined by the survival of Saddam Hussein, and Bush's admission that he helped Hussein in the hope of reforming him, before calling him another Hitler.
If trust is to be the issue it seems too much to expect that the Bush campaign will lay off the subjects of womanizing and draft-dodging between now and election day.