WASHINGTON — It's April, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole is far behind in the polls, the Republicans on Capitol Hill are in disarray, the press reports favorably on Bill Clinton's presidency and the economy seems steady. The gloom in GOP circles hasn't been this bad since the last month of the 1992 election campaign.
But, of course, none of this matters, as long as the Republicans don't panic. The most important fact is that it's only April. In April 1992, George Bush was still leading comfortably in the polls. Yet, there were central facts about the Bush presidency, and Bush himself, that should have caused alarm bells to ring loudly enough for all Republicans to hear. The most compelling fact was that people didn't like Bush; they only tolerated him.
We have a similar situation in this race. There is little real enthusiasm for Clinton, only tolerance, and so the question becomes whether the Republicans can build enthusiasm for an alternative approach, not how to change the polls by June. A steady course is what is required, an approach that builds support across-the-board.
Most particularly, polls reveal the GOP has a serious problem, at all elective levels, with women voters, and so Republicans are hearing a lot of advice as to how to fix this. You are too harsh, too uncaring, they are told. Change your position on abortion, forget about welfare reform, don't be so serious, comb your hair differently and maybe you can romance the women voters into submission.
I'm always astonished at how easily we try in politics to divide people into groups and then develop tactics to get their votes. This is the land of the individual, and so it is somewhat inaccurate to divide us into groups, but, clearly, the most inane grouping would be to purport that either men or women could be treated as a monolithic group.
It is true, as far as polling is concerned, that a majority of women voters have shown a tendency over the last 30 years to move from one position to another, from one candidate to another, more slowly than male voters. But that is all that can be said. To guess about the reason for this, or to take action based on such a guess, would be foolish, but it is a fact that the majority of women seem more skeptical, more deliberate, less believing or less risk-taking in making up their minds.
Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office, the Republicans have consistently lagged behind in the polling support they receive from women. But from Barry M. Goldwater onward, it has been the Republicans who have recommended the most radical changes, so there is nothing mysterious about this result. The only exception was in 1972, when Democrat George S. McGovern recommended radical change. In that race, there was no significant difference between men and women voters in the overwhelming support given Richard M. Nixon.
So what should the GOP do to change its standing with women voters? Just what they need to do to appeal to all voters: Adopt a list of legislative and presidential goals they promise to achieve if elected. Changing the party-platform position on abortion, even if it might be a good thing to do in the future, would result in little additional support and a loss of credibility on everything else the Republicans had to say. The same is true concerning welfare reform and all the GOP's other social positions.
The suggestion has also been made that perhaps Elizabeth Dole is the answer to the GOP gender-gap problem. Unfortunately, neither men nor women cast their ballots for president based on whom the first lady should be and, anyway, we haven't heard any political opinions from the co-president (as Hillary Rodham Clinton was billed in 1993) since the Republicans won the congressional elections in 1994. You can't even frighten people over who the vice president might be--as the Democrats attempted in 1956 when Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack, and again in 1988, when the prospect of Dan Quayle becoming president seemed ludicrous.
Elizabeth Dole is a good campaigner and can help a lot if there's something to help. So we come back to the question of what the Republican agenda should include. This is something the GOP leadership in Congress will have to decide--but to whatever agenda they set, I would add the following:
* Meaningful tax relief for middle-income families. The president can claim the economy is performing well, the stock market continues to set new records, but anyone can see families are being stretched beyond their means and are uncertain of the future. They need more money now, not the promise of a better future. Give it to them in a way they can understand by increasing personal exemptions. In addition, allow single-parent households, where one parent is both father and mother, the same tax status as those filing joint returns.