It is mid-October 1980. You are 10 points down in the polls and dropping fast. You've changed campaign consultants three times. Washington real estate agents are calling on the hour to see if your house is on the market yet. What do you do? Here are three last-minute desperation. Rule Seven:
Portray Your Opponent as Outside the Traditional Fair Play Standards of Politics
Until recently, the standard rule for incumbents running for reelection was to ignore your opponent. After all, why give your little-known challenger free publicity by attacking him? But times have changed, and political strategies must change with them. One of the reasons that incumbent Democrats Tom McIntyre and Dick Clark lost last year was that they ignored their right-wing opponents until it was too late.
These days the smart incumbent will try to portray his challenger as so consumed by ambition and lust for office that he is willing to descend into the gutter to win the Senate seat. A classic example of this ploy was the uphill reelection victory of Republican Sen. Bob Dole over Rep. Bill Roy in 1974. The Dole campaign featured a television spot that actually began with mud hitting a poster of Dole, to the accompaniment of excerpts from Roy commercials. The mud slides off the poster as each charge is answered and then the announcer intones, "All of which makes Bob Doyle look pretty good and Bill Roy look like just another mudslinger."
Already, liberal senators up for reelection in 1980 are portraying themselves as the innocent victims of right-wing hate groups. When a group called Target McGovern began distributing a leaflet with a bulls-eye zeroing in on a caricature of McGovern wearing a tie covered with peace symbols, the South Dakota Democrat's response was perfect: "It doesn't make you feel very good to see a telescopic sight over your heart. There are a lot of sick people around . . . It's obviously an extremist hardline group that operates outside the traditional party structure."
The formula is simple. Imply that while you would welcome a challenge from a responsible and equally high-minded Republican, it is unfortunately clear that your opponents do not understand the Anglo-American tradition of fair play. So what if your private polls show that a responsible, high-minded Republican would beat you two-to-one? Rule Eight: Confess Your Sins on Television
Take your cue from Richard Nixon's 1952 Checkers speech and admit your error of your ways. Offer the voters a chance to bathe you in the sweet waters of reelection. Mea-culpas work. Ask Chuck Percy. Last year Percy was trailing dangerously in late October when he took $450,000 of his own money to cut a television commercial that was a carefully crafted apology to the voters of Illinois. The text will live as long as men are free: "The polls say many of you want to send me a message. But after Nov. 7, I may not be in the Senate any longer to receive it. Believe me, I've gotten the message, and you're right. Washington has gone overboard, and I'm sure I've made my share of mistakes. But in truth, your priorities are mine, too -- stop the waste, cut the spending, cut the taxes." Rule Nine: Admit Alcoholism
In this age of psychoanalysis and est seminars, most Americans are inspired by stories of personal salvation. These days we regard alcoholism as a disease, not a sin, reserving the latter category for smoking in a crowded elevator.While no one likes a falling-down-drunk senator, who can fail to be inspired by a public figure with the honesty to admit his shortcomings and the courage to go on the wagon? If it is a slow week, you may make the cover of People magazine. There will be the tearful interviews with your wife and family and approving murmurs from your colleagues in the Senate.
The last person to do this successfully was Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey. In the late 1960s, Williams had a drinking problem so severe that he had been censured by the state NAACP for showing up drunk at a breakfast meeting. But once he confessed alcoholism, the tidal wave of sympathy won him two more terms in the Senate. Warning: polls show that the American voter is unlikely to extend the same tolerance to a senator who confesses heroin addiction and places himself on a methadone maintenance program.
There you are -- the nine commandments of running for cover. Now for the fine print on the limited warranty. Politics is slightly less than an exact science. Let me pull from my case files the sad story of Sen. Wendell Anderson of Minnesota who followed four of these rules in 1978.
Anderson had a macho hobby (he had played hockey on the 1956 Olympic team), but skated on thin ice throughout the campaign. He caved in on one issue (supporting the rights of power boats to use the Boundary Waters Canoe Area), and permanently angered evnironmentalists. His support of tuition tax credits for children in parochial schools cost him the backing of the Wisconsin Education Association. He even apologized to the voters for resigning as governor to take Vice President Mondale's Senate seat, but the voters never forgave him for doing it in the first place.
After winning only 40 percent of the vote, former Sen. Wendell Anderson is now practicing law -- in Washington, of course.