Long before the official presidential campaign began, before the first candidate kissed the first baby in New Hampshire, an echo of elections past began to fill the air. This sound, which gained strength and power over the months, was the sound of Democrats crying "foul!"
While every recent Democratic presidential hopeful has made liberal use of the charge that Republicans rely on dirty tricks during campaigns, none mastered it as early or as well as Bill Clinton.
At the first whiff of criticism or even a recitation of facts from his record, the Clinton camp immediately went on the attack, accusing Republicans of dirty tricks.
If unflattering stories cropped up in the press, the Democrats decried the low road taken by Bush-Quayle "operatives." Day after day, they sounded the refrain. The Clinton people have crowed about the effectiveness of this strategy, and it has worked.
It has become virtually impossible for the president to discuss any issue _ from Clinton's economic proposals to his draft record _ without being tarred as mean-spirited or accused of McCarthyism.
When a recent Bush campaign ad estimated the costs of Clinton's economic plan, Clinton advisers complained the numbers didn't come from them. That's because they never calculated the most important number of all _ what tax rate you must charge to generate $150-billion in revenue. It's gotten so bad that Republicans can barely talk about the record without some reporter asking, "Is this another Willie Horton?"
It's important to recall that the big early scandals involving Clinton's character were not generated by Republicans, but by the press and his Democratic primary rivals. But that didn't stop him from blaming these stories _ the Gennifer Flowers "expose" and his draft record _ on Republican dirty tricks.
And when his 1969 letter about avoiding the draft was published, he lambasted "a pattern by people desperate to stay in power and willing to impugn the motives, the patriotism and the lives of anyone who stands in their way."
After his claim that the Pentagon had leaked the letter was proved wrong, Clinton continued to blame "the Republican attack machine" and "search and destroy politics that have taken the heart out of the political system in this country."
For the most part, the press did not hold him accountable for such unsubstantiated or demonstrably false charges. So he has stuck with his tactic: never defend. This attack campaign has two major goals: to mask the Democrats' own assaults on the president and to inoculate Clinton from Republican charges.
No campaign in recent history has been as aggressively personal as Clinton's assault on Bush. A co-chairman of the Clinton campaign called the president "a racist." Ron Brown, the national Democratic chairman, likened the president's racial policies to massive resistance to civil rights in the 1960s South. Al Gore has insinuated that Bush lied about the POW-MIA issue and called him a hypocrite.
During the Clinton-Gore bus-capade in July, Gore and other speakers would rise to rip into Bush and Dan Quayle, then Clinton would take the stage and sanctimoniously warn the crowd not to fall for the Republicans' tactics.
He told one audience, "Everywhere I go, people say, "Are you ready for one more Republican negative campaign?'
This is character assassination, plain and simple, disguised as a plea for civility.
Despite the polls, I don't think the Clinton scheme _ cynical, clever, well-orchestrated _ will succeed through Nov. 3. Americans just don't like unfair tactics _ especially unfair tactics masquerading as fair play.
Haley Barbour was political director for the Reagan White House.
New York Times