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National Perspective | RONALD BROWNSTEIN / WASHINGTON
OUTLOOK

Dole Must Now Decide How to Define His Relationship With Gingrich, GOP

May 20, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Emotionally wrenching as it might have been, Bob Dole's decision to resign from Congress was not the most difficult choice he faces in his presidential campaign. More difficult, and ultimately more important, is deciding what to do about the man who stood at his side as he made the announcement: House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Dole's departure solves his most immediate tactical problem: his self-imprisonment in the tar of interminable and inconclusive legislative struggles with Senate Democrats. If you're banging your head against a wall, it's a good decision to stop; in that sense, Dole's resignation was a good decision.

But Dole's move leaves unresolved the principal strategic question facing his campaign: defining his relationship with the colleagues and agenda he is leaving behind. The basic structure of American politics since last fall is not complicated. In a simple reciprocal motion, President Clinton has ascended in public esteem precisely as Gingrich and the congressional Republicans have declined. Dole has failed to inspire much enthusiasm on his own, but his biggest problem is that he has been dragged down in that undertow.

Republican officials were given an uncomfortable look at the strength of that current in a series of recent focus groups with swing voters that the party convened around the country. As one top party operative delicately put it, the sessions showed that Democrats "have to a certain degree sold the idea that somehow the [congressional] Republicans are extreme." Thanks to John King of the Associated Press, who obtained more detailed findings, we know the results were even worse than that, with voters repeatedly using words like "radical" and "gone too far" to describe the GOP Congress. Some of the comments about Gingrich couldn't be reprinted in a family newspaper.

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Republicans understandably feel indebted to Gingrich. He was the intellectual engine of the party in the wilderness of the late years of George Bush and the early ones of Clinton; more than any single figure, he can claim credit for the historic GOP victory in 1994. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he and his allies overreached in 1995, producing a polarizing agenda--particularly on the budget and the environment--that alienated the political center of the country. The cost of that miscalculation is written in the surveys that now consistently show Clinton with a lead of 15 to 20 percentage points over Dole (not to mention Democrats leading in tests of sentiment about next fall's congressional elections).

Part of Dole's strategy for winning the nomination was to prevent any daylight from opening between himself and Gingrich. Now it is Democrats who want to cement that bond. Democratic party ads disparage the "Gingrich-Dole Congress"--with the placement of Dole in the subservient position adding the last bitter jab of mockery. Against that backdrop, the most important decision facing Dole may be whether he thinks he can win the White House with Gingrich at his elbow, or must find a way to signal his independence from the voluble speaker and the congressional agenda that Gingrich, more than anyone else, inspired.

This isn't a unique problem for Dole. Demonstrating independence from controversial figures and ideas in their own parties has been an essential rite of passage for many presidential candidates over the last quarter of a century. In each instance, the candidate faced the same test: proving that he would set his own course--and tame the excesses of his allies.

Clinton cleared that hurdle in 1992 when he confronted the Rev. Jesse Jackson over inflammatory remarks from the rap singer Sister Souljah. In a more subtle way, Bush took a modest but firm step away from Ronald Reagan's legacy by declaring in 1988 that he wanted a "kinder, gentler America."

Hubert H. Humphrey's agony over the Vietnam War in 1968 perhaps most closely parallels Dole's situation today. As Lyndon B. Johnson's vice president, Humphrey was waist-deep in the muck of the administration's policy on Vietnam--just as Dole has his fingerprints all over the GOP's 1995 congressional agenda. Like Dole today, Humphrey struggled to find his own voice without repudiating the man in whose shadow he stood.

During the spring, and again just before the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Humphrey sought to break from Johnson and articulate his own position on how to wind down the war, recalled Ted Van Dyk, a top Humphrey aide. But each time, Van Dyk said, Johnson pressured him into silence.

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