How to Approach the 'Character' Issue

Mary Matalin, co-author of "All's Fair: Love, War and Running for President" (Random House/Simon & Shuster), is host of the Mary Matalin Show on CBS Radio. She served as deputy campaign manager for George Bush in 1992

The debate you don't see is usually more interesting than the one you do. The '96 debate season has precipitated obsessive conversation and consternation among political cognoscenti. Not on the format or how many participants or any other logistical imbroglios, but on the signature issue of Bill Clinton's presidency: character.

The Clinton character question, which has festered throughout his career, always comes to a head at debate time. Lost on neither campaign is its potential political saliency. Endlessly monitored by polls, it typically registers as it did in a Gallup poll earlier this year.

Asked to list the best aspects of Clinton's character, the highest percentage of respondents answered NONE / no character / don't trust / two-faced / liar; asked to list the worst aspects, the highest percentage said liar / dishonest / cheat / thief / phony / crook.

Since the best perception of Clinton's character is as bad as his worst, the Clintonistas are concerned, Bob Dole's advisors confused and the press cacophonous. The country is all of the above.

Normally, character as questionable as Clinton's would provide a bull's-eye target. But campaigns are never normal and the pugilistic pundits who admonished Dole for "missing the big opportunity to deliver a knock-out punch" to Clinton in the first debate are overlooking the complexity of this issue and the resiliency of this president. They don't understand the public's distinction between private and personal character issues.

Dole's rope-a-dope strategy during the first debate in Hartford was correct and well-executed. He managed a TKO--the best he could hope for in his first rounds against the heavyweight champ of campaigners. Throughout multiple campaigns, Clinton has absorbed death-defying body blows on personal character, and he's rarely even been down for the count. Mostly, the attacks just made him stronger and better prepared for successive bouts. (See, anyone can do these sports metaphors.)

In the second and last-chance debate, Dole needs to use the same technique--but with greater specificity and forcefulness. Most important, he needs to clarify the character issue in a way that connects it to voting behavior.

Voter confusion results from a breadth and depth of character infractions. One hardly knows where to begin:

Off the table are the plethora of personal peccadilloes--which, as Jack Kemp rightly said, are "beneath Bob Dole" to raise. Even if he could suppress his own dignity to wallow in Clinton's mud, the personal-character scandals are not vote determinants for the sector of the electorate still available to Dole. The conventional wisdom has been "character doesn't matter"--because the president's poll ratings seem not to suffer in the aftermath of sexual, financial or other personal improprieties. To millions of Americans, character does matter (they're repulsed by this president), but in political terms, these people don't matter. They're already voting for Dole.

Dole and Kemp both inferred from the way the character question was posed during the debates that moderator Jim Lehrer was inviting comment on Clinton's personal amorality. Indeed, Lehrer specifically asked for "personal differences." Both men rightly took a pass. They know undecided voters have already discounted Clinton's personal affairs. It's not a vote determinant.

What is a vote determinant is Clinton's public character--but only as it affects his public performance. Public acts of betrayal--broken promises, fabricated ads, abuse of power--may be driven by personal-character limitations, but they add up to a public record and should be viewed as such.

In every other race, raising questions on such topics would fall under the legitimate and necessary campaign imperative of examining your opponent's record. Campaigns focus on past performance because it's the most predictive of future behavior in office.

In this race, Clinton's personal amorality has so infused his public behavior that, in political parlance, his record is now called a character issue.

In San Diego, Dole should make the case that Clinton's record is a failure. The undecided voters care less about what personal shortcomings are behind his record than how that record foreshadows future policy-making that affects their lives.

In a memo to Dole/Kemp leadership, the campaign clearly delineates personal and public character and indicates what elements of Clinton's record will be aired. "Bill Clinton broke his promise of a balanced budget and a middle-class tax cut. He told our children that he'd use drugs again if given the chance. He dangled presidential pardons in front of his former business partners. He defied a congressional subpoena to hide the failure of his drug policies. He brought in dozens of unqualified and unethical appointees. He may have allowed an Indonesian banking syndicate to have access to the White House in exchange for contributions to the DNC. And he tried to scare our elderly with millions of dollars of vicious attack ads distorting Dole's support for Medicare."

Illuminating and objecting to this record is not an act of desperation. It's a focus on the choice before the public. Or, in Dole-ese: a better man for a better America. That Dole is a better man is important to his voters, but what will swing voters in numbers sufficient to win is that he will usher in a better America.

When he articulates the distinction in San Diego on Wednesday, he will have delivered the knock-out punch.

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