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It's Up to Dole to Stake Out the Battlefield : Clinton hopes to win just by being inoffensive. Voters want reasons to reject him.

June 09, 1996|JOHN H. TAYLOR | John H. Taylor is executive director of the Richard Nixon Library Birthplace Foundation

The prognoscenti's pet theme is that Bill Clinton and Bob Dole have so much in common--as political lifers, as centrists, as captives of the Washington status quo--that Dole can't possibly persuade enough voters to switch. And yet directly from the status quo's in-house newsletter comes a reminder that the American people sometimes grasp things pundits don't and a strong indication that, appearances notwithstanding, the election may be Dole's to lose.

The New York Times' latest poll showed last week that neither Dole's Senate resignation nor the felony convictions of Clinton's business partners substantially changed their political standings. If anything, Clinton's has improved. But in the antepenultimate paragraph of the Times' report was this startling news: "Even as Clinton seeks to move to the right and seize issues once the province of Republicans, 79% of Americans said there were important differences in what Dole and Clinton stand for."

So, eight out of 10 people know that there is far more than a dime's worth of difference between the candidates. In their hearts, Americans know that Dole's philosophical principles are substantially different from Clinton's. They understand that Dole's conservatism is real and Clinton's is tactical and they know that Dole has more character than Clinton, at least in the sense of meaning what he says. Dole can win the election if he gives Americans a good reason to act on their inchoate misgivings about his opponent.

These only tangentially have to do with personal allegations about the president. Journalists and even politicians sometimes forget that voters usually judge officeholders by their public rather than private behavior. Are our jobs safe? Is our nation secure? Clinton's strategy is based on avoiding giving people an overwhelming reason to vote against him. It's worked so far. The economy is growing and consumer confidence is up. He appears to be more fiscally conservative than any postwar Democratic president. He has scrambled to the right on crime and welfare. By 1980, the last Democrat to seek reelection, Jimmy Carter, had mishandled U.S.-Soviet relations and humiliated us in Iran; Clinton's policies in China and Bosnia probably won't give the GOP the same kind of ammunition. Clinton's man, Shimon Peres, lost in Israel, but his man Boris Yeltsin might well win in Russia. The candidates' principal salient difference, on abortion, helps Clinton.

From all appearances, Clinton's modest hope is that Americans will decide in November that he has been an adequate manager of the executive branch. He is banking on Dole to fail to offer the inspiring, transcendent challenge that is needed when an incumbent, abetted by his media shills, has inoculated himself against most conceivable attacks. You may believe that Clinton's assumption is a safe one, that Bob Dole is not in the transcendence business. If so, tell it to those who nearly left him for dead physically a half-century ago and politically just last February. Putting our bloated, dysfunctional, arrogant government in order for the 21st century will take a heroic effort. I think voters are just waiting for Dole to be a hero again.

The Ross Perot surge in 1992 (which gave us Clinton to begin with) and the Republican sweep in 1994 still resonate loudly. Each was a demand, as yet unfulfilled, to build a government that works, that serves the people instead of confiscating and squandering their wealth. But to channel that anger, Dole must forsake the system that nurtured him and that he helped mold for 35 years. His program must contain radical tax reform and massive income tax and budget cuts. When the White House's vaunted instant response unit notes that Dole wants to cut taxes and programs he once favored, he should absorb the blow calmly. For two generations, he might say, he and many other men and women practiced government as selflessly as they could. The tragedy of the advantage-seeking and influence-peddling of the Whitewater and White House travel office scandals, Dole should be so bold to say, is not that they are singular but rather so common, so thoroughly bipartisan, so redolent of business as usual. The lesson of Whitewater is that government, whether by conservative Republicans or liberal children of the 1960s, has come to exist for its own sake and that of its elites. The American people know it and they're sick of it.

Dole needs a vision of a federal establishment that is true to the people's yearnings. His chance to win stems from their lingering instinct that he has the character to admit that government is broken, in part as a result of his own well-meaning exertions, and the capacity to work with other idealistic conservatives to fix it.

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