October 17, 1996 in Nation/World

Attacks On Clinton Were Too Little, Too Late For Dole When It Came Down To The Wire, He Found No Way To Produce The Dramatic Moment He Needed

Steven Thomma Knight-Ridder
 

He didn’t want to do it, had put it off as long as possible.

But Bob Dole knew this was his moment - perhaps his last moment - to persuade America to give him the presidency.

With his 20-year quest for the White House down to this, Bob Dole took a deep breath at the start of Wednesday night’s second and final presidential debate and launched into a pointed attack on President Clinton’s ethics and character.

In the end, it probably was too late. Debates rarely change votes, and Dole found no way Wednesday night to produce the dramatic mind-changing moment he needed.

Perhaps, as so many Republicans had urged, if Dole had started weeks or months ago to raise questions in voters’ minds about the Clinton administration’s ethics, he would have been able to have chipped away at the president’s lead by now.

But Dole has never been comfortable with the idea of a personal attack, and now the very people who handed him the Republican banner are beginning to blame him for what they view as inevitable defeat.

If they and the pollsters are right about the November outcome, it will be a personal loss of Shakespearian proportion for the aging Kansan.

He has tried so hard. Over two decades, Dole has repeatedly twisted his political posture this way and that, all in an effort to be someone he could never be and win a job he probably never was suited for.

As many senators have demonstrated before him, the Senate is not an effective training ground for executive skill and public leadership. Only two men in this century have stepped from that chamber to the White House - Warren Harding and John Kennedy - and Dole has neither Harding’s affability nor Kennedy’s magic.

“The guy was a good legislative technician, he had a respected career in the Senate. But he’s never been a national candidate. And he’s been awful,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa.

“The Republicans nominated the one guy who hated campaigning … who is not comfortable out in front of the public. … You can’t help but wonder, why did he want to put himself through this.”

Whatever the reasons of ambition and need, Dole has been putting himself through it for years. He first tried for national office in 1976 when he was chosen as Gerald Ford’s running mate, and he was branded a hatchet man when he enthusiastically adopted the attack dog role of a vice presidential candidate. He tried for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and fell flat. He tried again in 1988 and again was dismissed as a mean-spirited also-ran.

Running this time, he signalled early and often he would wear whatever political garb his advisers thought looked best on him, whether it fit or not.

“If that’s what you want, I’ll be another Ronald Reagan,” he told GOP activists.

In the 1996 primaries, he abandoned his typical centrist politics to move to the right and under pressure from the conservatives in his party, he reversed his years-long opposition to tax cuts in favor of federal deficit reduction. Instead he staked his campaign on a 15-percent tax cut across the board.

When it appeared that his cherished job in Congress was bogging him down, he quit, even shedding his suit and tie for a day to appear like a non-Washingtonian.

But he never figured out how to counter Clinton’s campaign skill and his ability to deflect criticism.

Fearful of being labeled a hatchet man yet again, Dole spent weeks avoiding attacks on the Clinton administration’s ethics. When he finally turned to that tactic this week, it probably was too late. Said former GOP rival Pat Buchanan: “They should have been doing this for months.”

That kind of second-guessing signals what is likely to be a bitter irony for Dole: the party that finally gave him its most prized nomination could well turn on him in anger.

If Dole loses the election, the conservatives who dominate the party likely will spend months to come debating, even fighting, over the loss. Some will say the country rejected the party and its conservatism. Others will say Dole was a poor candidate who ran a inept campaign.

It will be the harshest of monuments to a long and distinguished political career.


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