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Jewish World Review Aug. 25, 1999/ 13 Elul, 5759

David Limbaugh

David Limbaugh
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Dubyah's drug question: Not a hill to die on -- THERE ARE TWO DISTINCT ISSUES involved in what has now become a near-farcical story. 1) Did George W. Bush ever take cocaine? 2) Should he answer that question?

Though no one has been able to produce any proof that W ever used cocaine, we can reasonably wonder why, if he didn't, he doesn't just come out and deny it. But from his point of view, there may be a justifiable reason he hasn't.

He has made it quite clear that he otherwise abhors this so-called politics of personal destruction. This seems to have become thematic with him, transcending his personal problem (or not) with drugs. It's almost as if he wants to force a referendum of sorts on the issue.

So it may be that the reason he will not fully answer the question is that he is using this as kind of a test case about negative campaigning.

Accordingly, my hunch is that he is thinking along these lines, "I am not going to participate in dirty politics. I am convinced the American people are fed up with it, and I'm taking my case to them. I believe they'll support me on this."

Whether or not he personally indulged in drugs, W has been very consistent about his aversion to negative campaigning, in fact, to negativity of any sort. He hasn't attacked other candidates and has remained positive and optimistic. He preaches a politics of inclusiveness, and he talks about wanting to appeal to our better angels. I'm convinced he means it.

Though Bush is genuinely passionate about eschewing negative politics, it will be difficult, if not impossible for him to sell his point in the context of his particular situation, where he has a perceived conflict of interest. That is, he will be hard-pressed to establish credibility arguing against negative campaigning in general when it may appear that he is using that argument as a convenient excuse to dodge questions concerning his own personal behavior.

Besides, I don't subscribe to the glib view that it is below the belt to discuss a candidate's past behavior. Questions about a presidential candidate's use of illegal drugs are fair game because they may bear on his character. Just because Democrat Clinton has gotten away with murder (not literally) doesn't mean Republicans should abandon character as an issue. The framers were adamant that virtue would be among the nonnegotiable traits of the Chief Executive.

My view is that such behavior, especially if in the distant past, should not be a disqualifying event.

Of course, it is noteworthy that Democrats such as Tom Daschle, who were most militant in their defense of Clinton's "private" behavior -- when it wasn't private at all -- are now invoking this double standard. They couldn't care less whether someone has done drugs but they'll milk it for as many partisan points as they can.

But in W's case, there are two additional reasons he must answer the question definitively, and get it over with.

The first is that there are already endless comparisons between W and Clinton, without W providing further ammunition. It's not damaging to Bush if people compare his pure political skills to Clinton's, but that's where he should see to it that such comparisons end. By not fully answering the question, he may appear to be playing it cute -- like Clinton might do. Above all else, in the post-Clinton era, we must purge cuteness from politics. Forevermore!

The second is that W has been demonstrating anger and frustration of late, especially when he's asked this particular question. He needs to minimize, not perpetuate such incidents, as they do not promote his presidential image.

Bush should answer the question fully, and then draw his line in the sand, without answering any further questions. The public will support him on that. Dribbling out information little bits at a time, after insisting he wouldn't answer the question at all, makes him appear squishy and rudderless, which could do far more damage to his standing than revelations of actual drug use.

Plus, it will be much better for W to make any disclosures now with plenty of time remaining before the first caucus. The public, it seems, has been quite forgiving in these areas.

This is not a hill to die on. Hopefully Bush will not turn it into one.

JWR contributor David Limbaugh is an attorney practicing in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and a political analyst and commentator. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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