Get Ready for Baker: Master of the Negative

Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

He's baaaack! Big, bad James A. Baker III is reportedly on his way back to wave his magic wand and save his friend's presidential campaign. If I were the Clinton cam paign, I wouldn't fold my tent and go home in fear just yet. As good an instinctive politician as Baker is, even he can't save, overnight, this gang that can't shoot straight. What he can do is organize and execute a negative campaign against Bill Clinton that is now being pitifully orchestrated by George Bush and his henchmen.

Why pitiful? Start with Boss Hog himself, George, who is squealing like a little kid about how Clinton stole his line about changing the world. Oh, hurt me some more, George! With negative attacks like those, Clinton may never get off the mat and recover!

Or take Frederic V. Malek and Charles Black, two Bush senior campaign officials. In interview after interview, they use the same old tax-and-spend liberal lines that worked in the past, but seem hopelessly out of date now. Sensing that the American people want answers from Bush and not attack politics, Clinton easily deflected the assault by saying what the public believes: "It shows how impoverished they are. They have nothing to say to America, nothing to be for, no record to run on, no vision of the future."

Or take the potato man himself, Vice President Dan Quayle, who said, "Beyond the rhetoric, the Democrats are up to their old tricks. They want to raise your taxes." Whoa, Danny Boy! Whose lips are you reading? Clinton by a knockout.

So what can Baker do to straighten out this sorry excuse for a negative campaign? By now, Baker has figured out two things: 1) Bush cannot get elected in his own right and the only road to reelection is the destruction of Clinton; and 2) Clinton's destruction will not be nearly as easy as that inflicted on Michael S. Dukakis, nor will the attacks of '88 work in '92. Clinton knows Bush is playing from a weak hand and that this current line of attack appears hopelessly defensive.

My guess is Baker will attempt to get to Clinton in a more subtle way by taking a page out of his campaign book against Yitzhak Shamir in Israel. Seeing that Shamir was the principal obstacle to Mideast peace, Baker decided it was essential that Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party win the recent election. Baker skillfully sought to withhold U.S. loan guarantees until something was done about settlements in the occupied territories. Though Baker never directly intervened in the election, he made it clear that good relations with the United States would be greatly enhanced by a Labor victory.

So what lesson should the Clinton campaign take from this? Simply put, Baker is an artist at undermining a candidate's credibility by going around him and avoiding frontal attack. You can expect to see questions raised in the business community about Clinton's economic plan--with constant reminders of what happened the last time the Democrats controlled the White House.

You can expect to see leaks about Saddam Hussein's nuclear capability and the continuing destabilization of the former Soviet Union where, need we be reminded, nuclear weapons still exist. If we need to be reminded, Baker will: Can you trust Clinton in this dangerous world? You can expect to see Baker resurrect the character issue by skillfully using the Bush family to underscore values. I wouldn't be surprised to see an ad of George and Barbara traipsing across the Tetons, singing "The Sound of Music."

In other words, Baker will bring a velvet glove and an organized mind to the Bush negative campaign. Despite all the praise Baker gets as a terrific politician, never forget his skills as a master practitioner of the negative. Anybody still think Baker was upset by Willie Horton?

So, the Clinton campaign, beware. The amateurs are about to exit and the master will enter the scene. But remember even the master is playing with a terribly defective instrument. A word to the wise: Just keep him in sight; don't let him put you on the defensive--or at least not for long, and respond to every attack with an attack. And don't be afraid to finger Baker himself. Gentleman Jim's got a thin skin. Exploit it. And remember, above all, no matter how good Baker is, he still has to reelect Bush. Peace in the Middle East will seem like child's play.

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