In a more or less conservative country, the more or less conservative candidate—Bob Dole—should have been a shoo-in for the presidency, especially against a feckless charmer whose Administration threw off scandal like spores. But until the end, Dole was barely competitive, and in the end he lost. There are three schools of thought on why. The first:
Everything went wrong. Dole was so bloodied and bankrupted by Steve Forbes in the primaries that he never fully recovered. The choice of Kemp for Vice President seemed bold, but Kemp as candidate was not: he was weak and embarrassing. The Republicans took an early pounding on Medicare and were late in understanding the impact of a year’s worth of anti-G.O.P. spots from what should once again be called Big Labor. The President’s luck on almost everything held—until the very end.
Clinton’s people were better. Clinton surrounded himself with tough and talented tigers who spoke with authority because they had been in the meeting. Dole surrounded himself with second-raters who had the easy arrogance of national-campaign veterans and no national-campaign experience. In the last month they got up every day with what a Washington insider called two and only two objectives: not to get fired and to blame everything on Dole. They succeeded. That was staff. The lobbyists around Dole seemed more interested in getting a piece of the media buy than helping him win.
Dole got no breaks. But then he made no breaks for himself. He didn’t do the obvious, didn’t take full advantage of the conventions of modern campaigning, like the free media of radio talk shows. And he didn’t do the daring—picking a Cabinet in advance, making it Our Team vs. Their Team.
That is one school. Here is another:
It all came down to two things. The year began with two reigning cliches. One was that the incumbent would win because the economy was good; the other was that Dole was too old. Normally in an election the early cliches are replaced by newer cliches, but not this time. The good economy denied the challenger the traction he needed to move forward. As for Dole’s age, the best political commentary I heard all year came one morning on C-SPAN during the Republican Convention in San Diego. An elderly woman called in to say why she couldn’t back Dole. I am his age, she said, and people our age—they shouldn’t let us drive! Have you seen us on the highway? They shouldn’t give us licenses!
Reagan was almost 70 when he was elected the first time, and he was not too old. But Dole at 73 was, because he had the crochets of old age—crabbiness, defensiveness. Reagan looked forward toward the horizon, saw the city on a hill and said, Let’s go there. Dole looked back and saw flat Kansas, the boarders living upstairs and the family in the basement. He was emotionally landlocked. Where Reagan had a vision, Dole had only a picture: of Bob Dole sitting at a desk in the Oval Office and doing a good job. But a picture is not a vision, and Dole’s picture wasn’t enough.
There is a third school on Dole’s loss. It has to do with limitations—and not all the limits were his:
True, he never said anything interesting. On the stump he seemed like a man caught in a 1983 applause-line factory. He never thought aloud in his speeches, never offered the sustained and layered argument that precedes the applause line. He just declared things—And there’ll be no more crime in a Dole Administration!—and waited for people to clap as he cleared his throat. Every time I saw him on C-SPAN, his sentences lay there like half-dead fish flopping on the dock.
An almost poignant note: His staff advised him as to the modern media convention that a politician has to repeat his message relentlessly. They perhaps didn’t notice he didn’t have a message. So he took to repeating phrases endlessly: It’s about your money…your money…your money. I thought the media were exaggerating the tic until I saw him on the stump and found they didn’t report half of what they came to call the trifectas.
Dole ran on the wrong issues. More than most candidates, he needed the right ones to justify running at his age. In a good economy he shouldn’t have banked everything on a 15% tax cut, should instead have pushed a tax cut within the larger context of going after the biggest corrupter in American life, the IRS. He should have echoed Forbes: tear it down and sow the field with salt.
He made no use of a big issue: a latent anxiety about Clinton’s competence if something bad happens. Everyone in the country knows Clinton has had four years of good luck, and they all know luck doesn’t come in eight-year doses. Much could have been made of Clinton’s lack of international sophistication.
Clinton successfully obscured every issue. All politicians know how to dance, but boy, can this boy foxtrot. Clinton ran as champion of the family, knowing he could obscure the issue if he turned it into something else. And so family values became parental leave. It was brilliant. Dole never called him on it.
Clinton got away with having one of the most scandal-plagued Administrations in U.S. history. Perot gave a good speech detailing the scandal in this Administration and outlining its implications. Dole never made the case, only used applause lines—”some barroom bouncer named Craig Livingstone!” Dole never nailed Clinton in a way that said to the people: This isn’t just a partisan matter; this is a level of corruption that actually endangers our country.
The media played favorites by refusing to obsess on Clinton’s scandals. The other day at a Dole rally in New Orleans, a reporter was assailed by two Dole supporters who said the media are in the tank for Clinton and don’t report the scandals. The reporter answered, honestly, that the media had reported all the allegations against Clinton. But what the Dole supporters meant and didn’t say was this: the media failed to crusade against the scandals of the Clinton Administration as they’d obsessed on Watergate, on Iran-contra, on Ray Donovan and Ed Meese and all the smallest scandals of the Republican presidencies. They reported the Clinton scandals—and then let them go, released them like balloons into the air, where they disappeared.
Could any Republican have defeated the Great Conniver? I think so. A fighter aware of and engaged by the things that bedevil our country, a thinker able to speak with such clarity and simplicity that his words move people to action. That is not what the Republicans had this year in Bob Dole. But considering all he had against him, including himself, the percentage of the vote he won was a kind of triumph, even a kind of tribute to his gritty and stubborn endurance.