AFTER the Democratic convention, conventional wisdom was that the fall campaign would be brutal. Both sides would do whatever it takes - gloves off, smear tactics, bad-cop negative campaigning - to win.
So far, conventional wisdom seems right. President Bush has forsworn the gutter world of operative Floyd Brown, who brought us Willie Horton in 1988 and wants to continue his love affair with mud in 1992. Mr. Bush says he wants a fair campaign and has not attacked Mr. Clinton personally. But it's no secret that the GOP will toe the smear line, and perhaps go over it, in the next few months. Last weekend, Sen. Jake Garn, standing with Bush, attacked Clinton for allegedly dodging the draft and called the D emocratic ticket "pretty boys."
The Democrats, soporifically dull about fighting Bush in 1988, will not be so this year, they say. Clinton will not be as transcendental as Dukakis; he's gone so far as to threaten Bush with alleged scandals of his own if Bush throws mud.
Both sides need to take a Lee Atwater memorial pause. Mr. Atwater, the GOP's premier political pit bull in the 1980s, openly flouted the view that the only rule in politics is to win. If you could lie about a candidate and get away with it, fine. Yet, before the critically ill Atwater died last year he had the courage and character to renounce his tactics, apologize, and say he was wrong.
It is politics to characterize opponents unfavorably, compared to one's own views, platform, or record. What's deplorable is the recent pattern of half-truths, shadowy allegations, and outright lies that are spread for others to believe and repeat. That's called character assassination.
Neither party this political season should find itself preaching "family values" while at the same time practicing character assassination.
It may be shouting against the ocean to say so, but Democrats and Republicans might find fed-up voters more attracted this year to the party that least soils itself with exploitative tactics - whether race-baiting, the recent ugly anti-abortion TV ads showing aborted fetuses, or tunneling for dirt.
Put simply, the character of the candidate is reflected in the character of the campaign.