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Real Science: Clinton Is Suddenly Vulnerable

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP: A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

August 18, 1996|John P. Sears | John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980. He is now working on Jack F. Kemp's campaign

SAN DIEGO — In colleges and universities, professors lecture students on something called political science. I don't know what this so-called science consists of, since I never took any courses in political science. But I suspect it attempts to rationalize the seemingly random actions of politics and politicians.

Politics is not a science, however. It is a strange form of art in which human beings, operating against the deadline of an election, are forced to be creative and, in these moments derived from necessity, sometimes show true genius when it is least expected.

A vivid example of this has occurred in the last 10 days. The race for the presidency, described by many as a race between "bad" and "worse," has suddenly become exciting. Bob Dole, having previously demonstrated no talent for originality, revived his campaign by naming Jack F. Kemp as his running mate. Suddenly, the Republican Party, in severe danger of breaking apart, was miraculously united, the appeal of the ticket was broadened to give independents and Democrats a reason to consider the Republican option, and Dole himself was no longer seen as plodding and predictable. In science, oil and water will not mix; in politics, the combination can produce excitement of gargantuan proportions.

When post-Labor Day polls are taken, the presidential race will reflect a horse race in which the Republican electoral base in the South and West will have solidified. This means the GOP will come into the campaign with approximately 200 of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. The race will be won or lost in California and the big states of the Northeast and Middle West. Victory, which looked impossible 10 days ago, is now within reach.

The credit for this transformation goes entirely to Dole. Throwing aside 20 years of disagreement with the so-called growth wing of the party, he embraced its most dedicated proponent. This could not have been an easy decision--his quarrels with supply-side economics are well-recorded. But since it was a difficult decision, Dole should be applauded all the more. It is the sign of a great man that he can rise above differences and find the common ground of unity.

For Kemp, who within the last month had confessed to friends that he understood his political career was probably over, his inclusion on the Dole ticket was proof that nice guys don't always finish last. A constant and persistent thorn in the side of Republicans who chose to forget they belong to the party of Abraham Lincoln, Kemp was often a lonely voice as he fought for programs to benefit the inner cities, spoke up for Mexican immigrants and counseled moderation in race relations. Proof that his thoughts were genuine could be found in the price he paid for taking these positions: He became evermore isolated in his party, dismissed as a nag about matters that many Republicans did not wish to discuss. To be rescued from obscurity, and restored to a position of influence, is a miracle for which Kemp feels a tremendous sense of gratitude toward Dole.

Many predict this political union will not last. According to this logic, it is only a marriage of convenience with an inadequate prenuptial agreement. Kemp can never conform to the constraints of being No. 2 on the ticket, according to some. Dole, unable to put up with Kemp's constant carping, will leave him on the tarmac with his bags in about three weeks, according to others.

But such estimates miss the essential point of why these men are together in the first place: They need each other, and that mutual need will not change in the days and weeks ahead. It is only together that either one can succeed. To let differences of opinion rob this ticket of the chance to win would not serve the purpose of either man--and they both know it. Not since John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon B. Johnson as his vice president has there been such a vivid example of mutual need overcoming past differences, and here, as in that case, the marriage will last in spite of predictions to the contrary.

But I must confess, the events of the last 10 days have had an impact on me, personally. I first met Kemp when he was running for Congress in 1970. Running in a blue-collar, formerly Democratic district in Buffalo, he emerged victorious. Over the years, we became good friends and so, when he called to say he had agreed to serve as Dole's vice-presidential candidate and asked me to come to San Diego, I could not say no.

Now I find myself rearranging my life in order to be of some assistance to him in the fall. An endeavor that was not even remotely in my mind two weeks ago now has erased my calendar and rendered once-important matters insignificant. And, because I am working on this campaign, I can no longer comment on it as an analyst for The Times.

But, all of a sudden, Bill Clinton looks deeply vulnerable to me, guilty of trying to occupy too much political territory. His support is a mile wide and an inch deep. What looked like a fortress appears to be an inviting target. What looked impossible now seems within reach, if only the correct assault can be mounted.

You see, this is why politics is not a science; it can make cynical old men like me believers again. With one stroke of his brush, Dole has rendered all past assessments of the race inapplicable and any past mistakes on his part inconsequential. There will be a real contest now, one which the people should enjoy. In the race between bad and worse, worse just got a whole lot better.

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