Bob Lighthizer, treasurer of Sen. Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, was making small talk with Bob Woodward, the famous journalist who is writing a book about the 1996 race, when Woodward made an innocuous comment about “old guys.”
“Old,” Lighthizer said, “is not a word we use on the Dole campaign.”
Of course, the 71-year-old Dole, who formally announced his third bid for the Republican nomination Monday, knows that “old” will be an issue. If elected, he would be the oldest president inaugurated for a first term. Ronald Reagan, who was 73 at the start of his second term, was 69 the first time around.
But the “old” that Dole will be confronting might have less to do with his chronological age - few dispute his stamina - than with the era he represents, whether his views are outdated in the Republican Party now driven by more ideological members.
Dole’s is the Republican Party of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, not the party of Newt Gingrich. He came of age when the interstate highway, not the information superhighway, was proposed. His career is driven by results and compromise, not single-minded vision.
He talks about having “one more mission,” “one more call to serve” left in him for his generation, the one that marks itself more by the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt than by that of John F. Kennedy.
In his formal announcement speech at the Kansas Expocenter, Dole summoned memories of the pain, sacrifice and triumph of World War II, of Dwight Eisenhower and Alf Landon, his fellow Kansan who won the Republican nomination in 1936.
He also tried to emphasize that, despite a 35-year career in Washington, he wants to de-construct the federal government that grew so explosively during his time there.
Framed by blue and gold banners before a crowd of a few thousand flag-waving supporters, moved indoors because of thunderstorms, Dole again uttered the words: “I am a candidate for the presidency of the United States.” Standing with him were his wife, American Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole, and his daughter, Robin.
This time, he starts the journey from the top, the clear front-runner for the nomination. But that perch can be precarious. He is so far ahead in opinion polls, he virtually has nowhere to go but down.
A recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed Dole leading his next closest rival, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, 46-13 percent.
The essence of Dole’s declaration was that the nation needed to return to a sense of small-town community, virtue and self-help; that many federal programs had grown far beyond their usefulness; and that the states were best suited to handle most of the nation’s problems.
“You can see many things from atop the hill in Washington where I work,” Dole told his supporters. “But you can see America from here.”
He said it was the love and devotion of the people from his boyhood home of Russell, Kan., the people who helped nurse him to health after he was severely injured in battle with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, that drove him to dedicate himself to “restoring the spirit of America.”
Dole argued that many intractable problems - a lack of family values, chronic dependency on welfare, rampant illegitimacy and violent crime - could be tied to the growing power of the federal government.
Although big government is essential to meet the “twin crises of economic depression and global war,” he said, “… the lifejacket of one generation can become the straightjacket of the next.”
He promised to both cut taxes and balance the federal budget; to eliminate the federal departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Energy and Commerce; to cut welfare and affirmative action.
Dole is irretrievably linked to Washington, D.C., at a time when voters profess their disdain for the capital. Within his own party, Dole continues to make an uncomfortable move rightward, trying to stay in step with his younger, more partisan, more ideological GOP colleagues.
For Dole, compromise has bred many legislative accomplishments; but opponents such as Gramm will question Dole’s commitment to the conservative agenda.
Now that the Republicancontrolled House has passed nine of 10 items in its “Contract With America,” it will be up to Dole, as Senate majority leader, to steer those programs through the Senate, where passage will be much more difficult.
The time Dole will have to spend on getting the contract items passed underscores another hurdle for his campaign. It gives him less of an opportunity to articulate a view for a Dole presidency.
Graphic: Robert Joseph Dole