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THE NATION

Merits of a Positive Campaign

July 07, 1996|John P. Sears | John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980

WASHINGTON — Polls taken in the last two weeks have gladdened Republican hearts, leading to the strong feeling that the presidential race is winnable after all. The truth is the race has always been winnable, given the lack of enthusiasm for President Bill Clinton. What is at issue is whether Bob Dole, and his handlers, can now grasp their circumstances and mount a successful, positive campaign for the fall. Unfortunately, there is no better than a 50-50 chance they will.

Less than two months ago, polling of the presidential race reflected a gap of 20%-25% between Clinton and Dole. Now it's 10%-15%, with Dole's support up to 40%. Does this mean the public now thinks more highly of Dole, that American voters now find acceptable a man so unacceptable just two months ago?

No, there's nothing in the new polls that indicates any better feeling toward Dole. Two months ago, Dole was just emerging from the primaries, where his GOP opponents had denounced him as unfit to be president. In this atmosphere, when voters were asked to choose between Dole and Clinton, the question really was, "Is Bob Dole qualified to be president?" They answered a resounding, "No."

Since the primaries, however, the political spotlight has moved away from Dole and back to Clinton. Renewed interest in the Whitewater investigation was predictable and the White House helped by being found in possession of more than 400 FBI files with no adequate explanation. Dole himself helped focus attention on Clinton by resigning from the Senate.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that since attention has been directed at whether Clinton should be president, polls now show a tightening race. But most of Dole's increased support has come from previously undecided voters, and Clinton's positive support has remained steady in the 50%-55% range. All that is happening is that formerly disgruntled GOP voters are reconciling themselves to voting for Dole.

But Republicans point to recent findings that the public now believes the Clinton Administration intentionally abused its power (56%) in obtaining FBI files on prominent Republicans and that the president personally knew of it (50%) as sources of future erosion of Clinton's support. This is buttressed by the finding that (46%-44%) the public now thinks Clinton did something illegal in Whitewater, and is even more convinced (53%-38%) that Hillary Rodham Clinton has committed a crime. Just keep reminding the voters that the Clintons are crooks, according to some Republicans, and Dole will prevail.

Unfortunately, this thinking avoids the reality of modern American politics. The people think all politicians are crooks, rating their veracity below used-car salesmen. If the issue becomes who is the bigger crook, the challenger loses because the people would rather keep the crook they know than take a chance on the one they do not.

Oddly, Clinton's acknowledged lack of principle makes him a safe choice if it is assumed that the country will simply drift for another four years. Wanting to be loved by all, with no deep beliefs of his own, he would continue as captain of a ship with no known destination--keeping it afloat until some future captain can bring land into view.

Things were simpler in the Cold War. We picked our presidents based on who we thought would be more artful in dealing with the Russians and yet avoid a nuclear war; few of us thought beyond the Cold War since we felt it would never end. It did, but we have yet to hear any politician describe a future for America beyond the Cold War. How should we use our military and economic power? Can we preserve our standard of living in a world with an overabundance of cheap labor? Should we be frightened that so many jobs are dependent on trade? In ancient Greece or Rome, in 19th century Britain, the attainment of far more limited success created a period of self-congratulations and a thriving culture. But Americans define life in terms of achievement--and if there's nothing left to achieve, life becomes empty and a little frightening.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy pledged that, before the end of the decade, America would put a man on the moon and bring him home safely. He didn't get this idea from a poll and had he consulted "experts," he would have been told it was impossible, too costly and not worth doing. But he knew his country and realized it needed a new challenge.

All through the '60s, as issues of race, the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution divided the country, we could all pause and feel good as U.S. astronauts came closer to achieving Kennedy's goal.

Conversations about welfare reform, balancing the budget and the other things discussed in politics today, are about possible leaks in the ship of state. Presidents are expected to paint a picture of where to go and how to get there and let the Congress fix most of the leaks.

Dole has one last chance to speak to the country as a president should. It will come in August, when he accepts the Republican nomination at the party's convention. But if he is only applying for the job of chief plumber, the one we have is good enough. We may not like him, we may not trust him, we may notice he has character flaws, but if we aren't going anywhere anyway, there's no reason to fire him.

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