“You never get two stories from Bob Dole. He is always straight.”
So declared Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico’s senior senator and a longtime Dole friend, as he introduced the Republican presidential nominee recently at an Albuquerque rally.
This image of a straight-shooting teller of truths is one of the few consistent elements in Dole’s scattershot campaign. In his long struggle to define his candidacy, Dole returns time and again to the self-assessment he voiced in the final presidential debate: “If I have anything in politics, it’s my word. … My word is my bond.”
But when Dole’s 35 years in Congress are compared with his speeches on the campaign trail, the result often is two stories.
Dole the senator built his reputation on pay-as-you-go budget rectitude; Dole the candidate pins his presidential campaign on a massive tax cut without specifying how it can be paid for. The senator spent years supporting affirmative action programs as a way to redress racial injustice, whereas the candidate insists, as he did again Monday, that affirmative action is bad for America. The senator tried to kill legislation that outlaws assault rifles, whereas the candidate says now there is no reason to overturn the resulting ban.
Sen. Dole’s legacy was to find common ground between two points. Candidate Dole is under pressure to take one side or the other on issues he hopes will grab the interest of American voters.
But changing the context of a national election is a task for which Dole the deal-maker has never been well-suited, according to his friends in the Senate and academics who have followed his congressional career. They say that by temperament he is a skeptic, suspicious of any supposed nation-shaking truth.
“When you are running a presidential campaign, you want to draw stark differences. This is not the kind of leadership role that Bob Dole learned to play in the Senate,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a close friend and campaign adviser to Dole. “It is one thing to be a Jack Kennedy, who never had to do what Bob Dole has had to do. There is no doubt that (Dole’s) tendency is to find the middle ground. You seek to find room for your opponent to agree with you so you can achieve a result.”
On the campaign trail, though, Dole has had to stake out positions that President Clinton - an exceptionally protean politician - could not imitate. The results were nothing if not inconsistent, as Dole skittered from “drug week” to “trust week,” from “Bill Clinton’s a liberal” week to “follow the money” campaign-scandal week.
“We were careening. We never stayed with anything long enough to make an impression,” said a senior adviser who has since left the campaign.
When Dole proclaimed his supply-side tax cut in August, he noted with some relief that finally he had delivered a speech that “Bill Clinton will never be able to give.”
Having made a 15 percent reduction in the personal income tax rate the centerpiece of his campaign, Dole was then compelled to both sell it to voters and convince them that he believed in what he was selling. On the day Dole announced the tax cut, former presidential candidate and now economic adviser Malcolm S. “Steve” Forbes warned, “If he is seen backing off of it, it is over. He knows it.”
But Dole built his national reputation as a sober-minded realist who slowed runaway deficits by helping craft tax increases during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. He’d been the dark-eyebrowed cynic who lobbed acid put-downs at suggestions that tax cuts would provide the economic growth to pay for themselves. Dole had told the same bitter joke for 14 years: “The good news is that a bus full of supply-siders went off a cliff. The bad news is that two seats were empty.”
On the campaign trail this fall, there were entire weeks when Dole seemed to have either lost faith in or forgotten about his tax-cut plan. While talking crime or drugs or school vouchers, he all but ignored the plan. At one point, Dole raised public doubts about his commitment to cutting taxes, saying that it would have to wait for a balanced budget.
Charles Jones, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin who studies Congress and the presidency, and who has watched Dole for decades, said the candidate has been forced to act against his own character.
“It is the nature of a presidential candidate to demonstrate commitment and consistency in commitment, and that it come across as genuine, whether you really believe it or not. But after 35 years in the Senate, any leader finds it hard to do. There is just plain discomfort in projecting a genuine commitment to a large-scale policy,” Jones said.
One Republican senator who is a close adviser to Dole said the candidate’s inconsistent campaigning on the economic plan cost him credibility. Polls bear this out. They show that most voters do not believe Dole’s promise that he can cut taxes and balance the budget at the same time. Even worse for the campaign, many voters see the promise as a gimmick to win votes.
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