President Clinton's personal attack on his predecessor flies in the face of clear indications that voters are hungry for some civility from their politicians.
Clinton unloaded on former President George Bush in Boston recently, alleging that the country "was in the ditch" when he (Clinton) took over in 1993, the implication being, of course, that more of the same could be expected if Bush's son, George W., wins the November election.
Clinton's comparison of the senior Bush's administration to the zany movie "Wayne's World" is not only unfair, it is utter claptrap. And the current occupant of the White House knows it. Moreover, it violates the traditional respect that U.S. presidents, who belong to the most exclusive club in the world, have for one another both during and after their own terms.
In contrast, Bush and his wife, Barbara, have been circumspect in public about their views of Clinton even when his lying about his Oval Office escapades with Monica Lewinsky dominated the news and turned the presidency into a series of late-night dirty jokes.
It would be a mistake for the Bushes to take the bait and respond in kind, although the former president issued a warning that he would do so if the attacks continued, promising to tell the world what he thinks of Clinton personally.
While the polls vary widely about how much George W. is leading Vice President Al Gore (they range from four points to as high as 12 points), those conducting them generally agree that there is a strong desire even among highly partisan voters for what researcher Frank Luntz calls the "politics of pleasantry."
Following that belief, Republicans here have been almost unprecedented in their decorum, suppressing the normal convention urges to bash their opponents.
They learned from the San Diego experience four years ago when a parade of Clinton bashers took the podium, reducing what little chance GOP candidate Robert Dole had of unseating the incumbent Democrat.
But Clinton's remarks, which showed little acknowledgment of the danger of negative campaigning, have brought a new dimension to the race, embroiling Gore in a strategy that in the past damaged his chances. Several months ago, Gore realized that the kind of attack campaigning that virtually buried his primary opponent, former Sen. Bill Bradley, was beginning to backfire.
Luntz, who is conducting a survey of swing voters for MSNBC both here and at the upcoming Democratic convention in Los Angeles, said his research shows that nonaligned voters are beginning to "feel comfortable" with George W. because the Texas governor "has been removing the negatives." This positive approach, Luntz said, doesn't necessarily build intensity, but it "moves the ball down the field nicely."
Former President Gerald Ford, who long has preached political civility, weighed in here after Clinton's remarks, saying that it was just wrong for the president to "sharp shoot" the elder Bush. He recalled that he and former President Jimmy Carter would have none of that kind of campaigning during the bitterly debated 1976 election or afterward.
The president's statements in Boston moves to a new intensity a feud between him and his predecessor that has been simmering since the 1992 campaign when Clinton turned the catch phrase "it's the economy, stupid" into a solid victory over a man who once had a job approval rating of 90 percent.
Even a cursory examination of the nation's economic condition during the Bush administration reveals how silly Clinton's charges are.
While there was a minor blip in the economy, the country was hardly in the "ditch" domestically or internationally. America's standing in the world, bolstered by the Gulf War victory and Bush's handling of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, was never higher. The slight economic downturn, exploited by Clinton, had begun to rebound by Election Day 1992.
For Bush, who seemed not to connect on domestic issues with independent and swing voters, it was too late. Bush has remained bitter about Clinton's 1992 portrayal of him as an uncaring "royalist."
Where does all this lead? Clinton should abandon the attack mode. There is no dignity in it and that is something this president desperately needs to restore. Bush would be just as well off ignoring the whole thing. Whatever he has been, he was always a gentleman.
And the voters should respond by demanding that both candidates remain focused on the positive.