Donaldson: A Presidential Race, Not a Garden Party

Kill Bill?

Pardon me for playing the role of skunk at the garden party intent on flaying the skin off Bill (and Hillary) Clinton for hitting Barack Obama below the belt on the campaign trail.

Have the Clintons, in fact, struck low? You bet!

But let us consider the circumstances and the likely result.

To begin with, this is no garden party the candidates are engaged in, it's a presidential race. And there is no more furious struggle in American life than the contest for the presidency. The timid need not apply. And to those who are outraged at the Clinton tactics and who believe those tactics must surely backfire, walk with me for a moment through recent history.

Gov. Mike Dukakis, well ahead in the polls in late August 1988, scoffed at the notion that he could be brought down by the misleading and downright dirty advertising that used convict Willie Horton and a revolving dark image of other convicts let loose from Massachusetts prisons by a heartless governor to rape, murder and commit crimes of further unspeakable nature. Dukakis believed the American people would not believe such distortions and would probably punish those who resorted to spreading them. Oh yeah?

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Eight years ago, John McCain came roaring out of New Hampshire, having beaten Texas Gov. George W. Bush there by 28 points only to hit the "firewall" of South Carolina, where the smears on McCain by Bush operatives were so gross -- nay, evil -- with malice aforethought that you might have thought no one would believe them. ("McCain fathered an illegitimate black baby," was one of the smears.)

Disbelieved? Did the smears boomerang against the smearers? Ho, Ho, McCain's bid was stopped cold!

And only last cycle, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who may be fairly faulted for various sins of omission and commission, but who won his medals for bravery in Vietnam fair and square, was "Swift boated" into oblivion. Did the public protest such mistreatment? Not so you'd notice.

What did Sen. Obama and his associates think was going to happen when they seized on Sen. Clinton's remark that it took a president -- Lyndon Johnson -- to bring Martin Luther King Jr.'s "dream" to fruition and let it be known they thought that was discrediting Dr. King? Just a little harmless distortion of reality and her meaning for political gain. In the lexicon of unfair tactics recited above, they rank very, very minor.

But what Obama's camp should understand is that they are up against the most accomplished and potent political machine of the present election cycle: The Clintons have been doing this for a long, long time. They know what works.

Sure, Bill Clinton rails about the "fairy tale" of Obama's Iraq War opposition when Obama's opposition has been unwavering and sure. Hillary Clinton takes Obama's comment about Ronald Reagan and Republican ideas out of context to run ads making it appear (falsely) that Obama was praising those Republican ideas.

But will the public punish the Clintons for this? I think not. If punishment is to be meted out, it must be at Obama's hand and hit back with the same ferocity.

And to those who recoil at the tactics employed in high stakes presidential politics, I would agree that it would be a better world if we followed Grantland Rice's admonition that we will be judged not by whether we won or lost but how we played the game. It is a noble sentiment and a worthy goal.

But the reality is we hire Vince Lombardi to win the Super Bowl and cheer him when he does!

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