Dodging: the Draft and the Economy

September 17, 1992

Voters who think the issue of Bill Clinton's draft-dodging has been laid to rest underestimate Republican expertise in the art of negative campaigning. With President Bush stagnating some 15 points below Governor Clinton in the opinion polls, the GOP's most tempting and perhaps only chance to close the gap is by tearing at the Democratic candidate's character. And the best opening, at least since Gennifer Flowers, has been provided not so much by Mr. Clinton's success in avoiding military service during the Vietnam War but by his often misleading explanations of his conduct.

According to a recent poll, one in five voters doubts Mr. Clinton's ability to serve as commander-in-chief -- a matter World War II hero Bush is tying to his rival's lack and "loathing" of military service. While the president took the high road rather than attack Mr. Clinton's draft record before the National Guard convention this week, his surrogates cannot leave the subject alone. Their attitude recalls Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey's warning the GOP would peel Mr. Clinton "like a boiled peanut" on this issue during the general election.

While the poll cited above also reported that voters satisfied by Mr. Clinton's explanations outnumber those who are not by 2-1, that still leaves one-third dissatisfied. The GOP may also anticipate added tidbits on the Clinton record from an estranged college friend, Cliff Jackson, who first told the Los Angeles Times about a Clinton uncle who tried to arrange a Navy Reserve assignment to delay induction. Mr. Jackson says more is coming.

High-minded civics teachers and editorial writers would prefer a campaign in which both candidates would talk about real problems facing the country, most especially huge federal deficits that hobble government efforts to combat the recession. But the president continues to be on the defensive on many matters of substance -- family leave, the environment, everything to do with the economy -- and would prefer to deal in personalities.

Having exploited the Willie Horton case with its race and crime overtones to overtake Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election, there is no reason to think Mr. Bush will desist from making the most of Mr. Clinton's draft record. Each day public attention is deflected from recession news is one less day Mr. Bush can be cornered on the economy.

Whether this strategy will work is of less importance, for the moment, than the deflection of national debate away from problems facing the country in the next four years. Can Mr. Clinton bury the draft issue? We doubt it, knowing how politics is played these days. But a speech in which he reviews his past actions in detail and explains them in the context of the wrenching Vietnam era might help voters feel more secure about his qualifications to be commander-in-chief.

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