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Building Credibility in Race That Has None

June 02, 1996|John P. Sears | John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980

WASHINGTON — Freed from his Senate obligations, a casually dressed Bob Dole, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, took to the campaign trail a few weeks ago. Flailing in all directions, he surprisingly struck a nerve with his denunciation of President Bill Clinton's support of late-term abortions. It wasn't much of a punch, and, if ignored, probably would have appeared to be just another case of political opportunism.

But, unbelievably, the Clinton brain trust struck back, denouncing Dole as a "quitter" and, more incredibly, the first lady stepped out of obscurity to tell us that she and her husband were thinking of having another child, or adopting one--but not until after the election.

I wish the Clinton campaign had ignored Dole's charge--as it should have. The criminal-fraud convictions of close associates of the Clintons, together with the recent ineptness of the Clinton campaign, made the previously moribund GOP euphoric at the prospect that Clinton may simply self-destruct, thus saving them from facing their own problems.

Even if the Clinton campaign could be counted on to perform as poorly as it has of late, even if Clinton could be relied on to demonstrate that he is even worse than the current perception of Dole, such a victory would leave the Republicans in office with absolutely no endorsement from the voters. Winning under these circumstances quickly turns to disaster; just ask Jimmy Carter, or Clinton himself, how fast voters, forced to elect the lesser of two evils, turn against the winner. Anyway, nothing that happened in the last two weeks has told voters anything they didn't already know about Clinton. While the polls will reflect some erosion in Clinton's support now that the political spotlight is on him, rather than Dole, the reality of the race remains the same.

Ordinarily, an incumbent race is a cut-and-dried affair. The incumbent claims full credit for everything good that happened during his first four years, and the challenger charges that the president's performance has been substandard. However, Clinton rarely mentions his record; instead, he rests his case for reelection on the idea that he is now in agreement with GOP goals but would accomplish them more humanely. Dole regularly says he could do better--but never says how. Add to this the fact that neither Clinton nor Dole has any credibility, and we can see this is far from a normal race. It will most probably set a new record for silliness, but there is at least the opportunity for originality.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king; in this race, just a little credibility will result in a landslide. While nothing Dole says will gain him any credibility, he should carefully examine what he might do that could achieve this purpose. But to prove this is fertile ground, let us examine one option.

Dole, together with the GOP Senate and House leadership, are on record as wishing to abolish the Department of Education. What if, at the end of the normal Republican tirade about the Department of Education, Dole added, "And I would ask former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander (or William Bennett), who is familiar with the department and agrees with me that it should be abolished, to reoccupy his former Cabinet position with the sole purpose of presenting a plan for abolishing the department to the Congress within six months."

What if, in reaffirming his resolve to send welfare programs back to the states, Dole added, "And I shall ask Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin to take charge of this transfer, so that it can be accomplished no later than July 1, 1997."

What if, after describing the foreign policy goals of a Dole administration, Dole added, "And I would ask Gen. Colin L. Powell, whose knowledge and experience in these areas is second to none, to undertake the fulfillment of these goals as my secretary of state."

Assigning specific tasks to credible individuals and asking them to perform them within a set period of time gives substance, or credibility, to rhetoric. It also renders useless any searches of one's voting record to find where you voted differently from what you now say you will do. It also challenges Clinton, since he is president, to act in ways that would prove he will do as he says he will if granted a second term.

Actions do speak louder than words and Dole, surprisingly, has more latitude to prove he means what he says than does Clinton. The president is bound by his own actions during the last four years, and while the Democrats in Congress can tolerate Clinton's Republican-sounding rhetoric, they will denounce him if he seems serious.

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