Back in 1996, President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign spot-welded the highly unpopular Newt Gingrich to Mr. Clinton's Republican challenger, Sen. Bob Dole. From television commercials to radio ads to speeches, the Darth Vader of the House of Representatives was continually morphed into any image or mention of Mr. Dole - to the point where some Americans actually thought Mr. Gingrich was Mr. Dole's running mate, or at the very least his Svengali. Was a strategy that basically ignored policy and the pressing issues of the time in lieu of a superficial and misleading attack effective? Bob Dole thought it was.
Less than two years after he lost to Mr. Clinton, I went to work for Mr. Dole as his director of communications, a position I held for the next five years. Mr. Dole and I spoke of that Clinton campaign strategy from time to time.
Although frustrated by the Clinton tactic, Mr. Dole saw the value in slipping the Gingrich anchor around his neck. In large measure because of the Gingrich shutdown of the government in November of 1995 - carried out in part, according to Tom DeLay and others, as a petty revenge against President Clinton for shunting him to the back of Air Force One - the former speaker of the House was lampooned from coast to coast and became the poster boy for all that was wrong with Congress in the mid-1990s. After that incident, the highly qualified and decent Mr. Dole knew the Clinton campaign was about to marry him to Mr. Gingrich - and he was powerless to stop this impending political death by association.
Twelve years later, we are seeing the same strategy from Sen. Barack Obama's campaign. By November, the Obama strategists will have labored mightily to have most Americans believe that John McCain is an older and more evil clone of George W. Bush.
Will the Clinton strategy of 1996 work this time? I suspect not.
Many political realities speak to why the Obama campaign better have something more tangible and relevant up its sleeve than the specter of a "third Bush term." Reality one is that as talented a campaigner as he is, experience-wise, Barack Obama is far from Bill Clinton - and even further from John McCain. Mr. Obama and his staff understand this and have taken the expected swipes at Mr. McCain over his age. Better to try to negatively define Mr. McCain before his life story - military career, torture as a POW, independent thinker, service in Congress - resonates with voters just tuning into this campaign.
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