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PERSPECTIVE ON CAMPAIGN '96

Bob Dole's Feckless Challenge

Downplaying principle, enlarging idiosyncrasy, he fails to motivate even the faithful.

September 16, 1996|ROSS K. BAKER | Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University

For hard-core Republican supporters, social conservatives or those voters merely depressed by the prospect of another Bill Clinton term, there might be a strong temptation these days to consult the Detroit Yellow Pages for the phone number of Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

Poll numbers showing Clinton with a double-digit lead, mounting to the point where he may well pull in Democratic congressional majorities, are consistent and persuasive. There is little evidence that the Dole-Kemp team--a pairing bizarre enough for a TV sitcom--is making much headway against the front-runner. To find a parallel for a more forlorn candidacy, you would have to reach back to the McGovern campaign of 1972. But even that ill-starred effort managed to develop a consistent set of themes and had a clear idea of where its constituency lay.

If there is an axiom in the political consultant's hornbook, it is that you need to lock in your core supporters and waste no time or money trying to convert unattainable voters. Remarkably, the Dole campaign has failed to stimulate and motivate the party's social conservative core, while Kemp, in what may be a socially worthy but politically otiose mission, seeks to persuade black voters to abandon Clinton. In their desire to avoid being associated with the acidic message of Pat Buchanan, Dole and Kemp offer a nutritionally empty pablum of bland cliches designed to present an image of moderation; from the dessert cart they offer a 15% tax cut. Aside from the dubious conservatism of the tax-cut proposal at a time when deficits remain a real concern, Dole has managed to denature the conservative message so completely that few on the philosophical right would have much motivation to get out of bed on Nov. 5.

In his effort to move toward the political center, Dole has all but abandoned voters who might actually be able to work up some enthusiasm for a Republican in 1996.

He has reached back into the Senate--perhaps the only place he is politically effective--to order Republicans to insist on the inclusion of a provision in the immigration bill barring the children of illegal immigrants from public schools. The legislation is tough enough without that section to satisfy voters concerned about the influx of unlawful residents. But in order to deny Clinton a South Lawn signing ceremony, Dole has effectively killed the bill, angering Republicans who have toiled on immigration reform for years. It is especially galling to Wyoming's Alan Simpson, who expected this bill to be the capstone of his 15 years as the Senate's point man on immigration.

Thus far, conservatives have heard nothing from Dole about the Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to disallow same-sex marriages contracted in other jurisdictions and denies federal benefits to such unions. To be sure, the bill has been passed by both houses and the president has promised to sign it, but Dole missed an opportunity to tie Clinton to Sen. Ted Kennedy's effort's to kill the bill or to the 70 Democrats who voted against it in the House.

Dole also has approached the abortion issue with the wariness of a technician dealing with an unexploded mine. Social conservatives may hold views on abortion that are out of the mainstream, but the polls also show that Americans don't like abortion and would prefer that there be alternatives to the procedure. Dole has shown a conspicuous lack of creativity in his failure to fashion an anti-abortion message that centrist voters could accept.

Viewed from the perspective of what is in the best interests of the American political system and the involvement of citizens, Dole has failed most conspicuously to give voters a real choice. He leaves them with the worst reason to vote for him and against Clinton--the character issue. He has downplayed principle and magnified idiosyncrasy. He has chosen to fight it out on the least auspicious terrain against a man far more likable then he, and his anemic standing in the polls is eloquent testimony to his failure to ignite any voter enthusiasm.

Had Dole been a more resolute and articulate advocate and presented himself as a candidate who does more than grumble about the regulation of cigarettes and gripe about how Clinton has stolen Republican issues, he might have been able to engender some enthusiasm in those Americans who care enough to come out and vote.

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