How He Got There
By Michael Kramer
(TIME, November 21) -- Early in the morning of Nov. 5, 1995, exactly a year before Election Day, Bob Dole was jetting from South Dakota to accompany the man whose job he sought. As Senate majority leader, Dole had been asked to join a high-level, bipartisan delegation assembled by Bill Clinton to attend the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister assassinated only hours earlier. Dole had barely known Rabin but viewed him as a soul mate nonetheless--a "no-nonsense kind of guy," he told me as we flew toward Washington--someone "who knew how to get things done." Those words, expressing Dole's highest compliment, were the very ones he was already using to distinguish himself from his Republican rivals, but more important, from Clinton. "I'm a doer, not a talker," Dole would say. "The President is a talker who doesn't do."
That was The Difference, Dole repeated endlessly, warming to the shorthand, sound-bite-size formulation he hoped voters would internalize. And at the time Dole was close enough in the polls to believe the prize could be his.
It's hard to recall now, but back then, a year after the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress, Clinton seemed likely to join the long list of one-term Presidents. He had become an object of derision, a chubby, drawling, waffling figure of fun. He had already set in place the single policy most responsible for his ultimate re-election--the deficit-reduction measures that gained the infant Administration credibility with the financial markets, which in turn helped the economy purr along. But his attempt to reform the nation's health-care system had split the country and overshadowed everything else, allowing the G.O.P. to portray him successfully as classically liberal and thereby capture Congress.
Clinton good-naturedly said voters had given him a "good country licking," but the short-term impact was far worse. Well into 1995, the President appeared so marginalized politically that he was forced to defend his relevance. After all, he said pathetically, according to the Constitution, "I'm still President." As for the future, his pollster Stan Greenberg summed up the predicament in two words. Clinton, Greenberg wrote in a memo, was "fundamentally mispositioned" as a candidate for 1996.
From these starting points, the two men began inverse journeys. Dole wound through an intricate maze of largely self-inflicted wounds before suffering a humbling defeat; Clinton sensed the national mood, embraced it rigorously and was rewarded with a startling victory. How Clinton came back, how he co-opted the G.O.P.'s most popular prescriptions and repositioned himself as the sensible center's poster child, will be studied (and copied) for decades. Dole's effort will be remembered too--as a case study in how not to run for President. Clinton's stunning reinvention as the people's choice was accomplished virtually uncontested by the candidate of the Republican Party, whose traditional tenets had come to define the majority's core political sentiments in the final decades of the 20th century.
WINNING THE NEWT PRIMARY Dole had wanted to be President ever since running with Gerald Ford in 1976. He tried hard in 1980 and harder in 1988 but failed famously, as Ronald Reagan and George Bush won the G.O.P. nomination in those years. "I never thought I'd be doing this again," Dole said in the summer of 1995. "But things just kind of came together to make one more try for the thing."
In Dole's mind, the most promising development was the very one that would eventually help undermine his candidacy: his party's recapture of both the House and the Senate a year earlier. Dole was once again majority leader. Back at the "center of the action," as he described it, Dole thought anew about the White House and wondered, as others had, "Why not me?"
After the tortured decision to make the race (everything he does involves an agony of self-induced second-guessing), Dole moved first to develop a decent working relationship with Newt Gingrich, the Republican revolution's commander, who had effectively supplanted Clinton as America's dominant political force. Dole's relations with the new House Speaker were cordial, but the two men were neither close personal friends nor ideological allies.
Every presidential campaign begins long before the first primary votes are cast. The early maneuvering constitutes an invisible primary all its own. Money is raised, operatives are employed, momentum is gained--or isn't. For Dole, Gingrich's endorsement mattered most. "Newt had called Dole the tax collector of the welfare state," said Scott Reed, who was Dole's campaign manager. "Not only was [Gingrich] noodling about running for President himself, but he had the power back in '94 to diss Dole and end his chances. To win the nomination, we had to get well with him first--and we did."
As a primary electorate of one, Gingrich was courted assiduously. Dole listened to his advice and deferred to him in meetings. "The only term to describe how we acted toward Newt" in those crucial preprimary months in 1995, says Reed, "is butt kissing." That alone may have been enough, but there was a good deal of self-interest involved too. Gingrich knew that supporting Dole could preclude a younger pretender from emerging, thus preserving the Speaker's post-'96 options if Dole lost. And if Dole won, Gingrich could function as the new Administration's chief policymaker, or so he reasoned. As Gingrich told Time in the fall of 1995, he saw the potential relationship between himself and Dole as replicating the World War II link between General George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff who set the war's strategy, and Dwight Eisenhower, who then dutifully implemented it. Dole had a different model in mind and mumbled, "Oh yeah? We'll see," when told of Gingrich's comments. Dole must have had a sense of foreboding: by drama's end, Clinton's astutely negative television campaign would cleverly marry the two men's images to leave the impression that the (evil) Newt, rather than the late-chosen Jack Kemp, was really Dole's running mate.
THE REMAKING OF A PRESIDENT For Clinton, winning in '96 required reverting to the themes he'd pushed successfully in '92. He had to adopt everything the nation thought was good about Republicanism and then go further and paint the Republicans themselves, or at least the Gingrichites, as beyond the centrist pale. The Great Repositioning began with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that debuted in the summer of 1995 in selected, midsize media markets--away from the national press corps' cynical gaze. The very first spot, aired on June 27, telegraphed the President's strategy: Clinton wouldn't be out-toughed. In that ad a solemn President stared at the camera and said, "Deadly assault weapons off our streets; 100,000 more police on the streets; extend the death penalty. That's how we'll protect America." From there the President's team directed a family-values campaign that routinely tarred the G.O.P. as the party of the rich.
It wasn't just intuition. The strategy was guided by a mid-1995 survey conducted by strategist Mark Penn. The "Neuropersonality Poll," as Penn called it, attempted to map the psyche of the American voter and became the campaign's blueprint. Armed with those data, every presidential remark, every action every gesture was pretested and scripted. No detail was too small. Rather than amble off Air Force One, Clinton marched; the campaign's most famous line, about "building a bridge to the 21st century," was intoned because "building a bridge to the future" tested less well; Clinton vacationed at Yellowstone National Park because the polls said Americans like outdoorsy vacations.
By Aug. 28, 1996, when Clinton said, "Our job is to give people the tools to make the most of their own lives," the echo was distinctive. He was exactly where he had been four years before, when, speaking equally of rights and responsibilities, he seemed to realize instinctively that voters wanted a minimalist but compassionate national government. So Clinton went forward by reaching back to the preliberal American tradition that sought to empower citizens with programs like the G.I. Bill, the Homestead Act and Land Grant colleges.
With the invaluable help of Dick Morris, the postideological strategist who had guided his 1982 comeback as Governor of Arkansas after a devastating defeat two years earlier, Clinton crafted a series of positions and actions that fixed him firmly in that holiest of political spaces, the center. In standing against Republican proposals to restrain the budget-busting cost of Medicare, Clinton appeared both compassionate and firm. In embracing the G.O.P.'s call for a balanced budget (in July 1995, fully eight months before Dole's nomination), he laid claim to fiscal sanity, an issue virtually owned by the Republicans since budgets were first adopted. From there a series of small-bore but powerfully symbolic pronouncements followed. In August 1995 he urged a crackdown on tobacco advertising directed at kids. Calls for school uniforms, teen curfews, V chips to block violent television shows, and a series of proposals aimed at women voters specifically (including bills designed to increase child-support collections, extend the family-leave act and mandate a longer hospital stay after giving birth) guaranteed that the gender gap, already in Clinton's favor, would grow to historic proportions.
THE POWELL FACTOR having won the "Newt primary," Dole, as the consensus front runner, had his choice of worker bees, and money by the ton. "There's a royalist mentality in the Republican Party," explains Roger Stone, a veteran G.O.P. operative who worked for Richard Nixon. "Others pop up, and and there's always the desire for someone else--in this cycle it was Colin Powell--but in the end, unlike the Democrats, we Republicans invariably reward the guy who's paid his dues. This time, it was Dole's turn. The bucks flowed naturally to him--and froze out others who may have made the race."
But with the political center vacant in the first half of 1995, that "desire for someone else" would reach out to the solid frame of General Powell, the Gulf War hero with an above-politics cast. Just as the prospective candidacy of Mario Cuomo had haunted Bill Clinton four years earlier, so Dole faced in Powell a potential dream killer. "Some things you can control," Clinton had observed philosophically as he darted about the country in 1991 while the Hamlet of Albany considered his options. "With something like Mario, all you can do is pray." In the fall of 1995, Dole too was praying. Powell had obsessed him--and the nation--for months. The general, said Dole, noting the obvious, was "hot." But "I can't affect what he does," Dole added. "I can only wait."
Finally, Dole's prayers were answered. Whether it was Alma Powell's well-known fears for her husband's safety or the general's own belief that he was unprepared for the job, on Nov. 8 Powell ruled out a run, only four days after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.
"Two down, one to go," Dole observed, adding Powell to Gingrich on his list of obstacles removed. Now, he reckoned incorrectly, the primary process could be easily traversed, which would leave only Clinton, the man Dole believed a sober nation would sensibly reject. "Still can't conceive of him in the job," Dole said, "even though he's got it."
Duel on Capitol Hill Everett Dirksen, a predecessor of Dole's as Senate Republican leader, once said, "I live by my principles, and one of my principles is flexibility." Dirksen would have marveled at Clinton's State of the Union address on Jan. 23, 1996, the speech in which the President declared that the "era of Big Government is over." As he continued co-opting Republican themes and perfected, in the face of the public's disgust with government, the idea that incremental policy initiatives could demonstrate vision and commitment, that single line reflected both a culmination and a foreshadowing of Clinton's re-election strategy.
Any prominent Republican could have responded to Clinton's State of the Union address, but Dole reserved the chore for himself. Had he his wits about him after the President spoke, as most any Republican would have, Dole could have welcomed Clinton to the G.O.P. and said good night. Instead, he prattled on nonsensically. "It wasn't a disaster, but I don't know what else you'd call it," says Senator Al D'Amato, a key Dole ally. "It looked right then like we were gonna get beat, and it got everyone thinking, 'Isn't there some way out of this? Isn't there someone else, someone new?'"
But there wasn't. It was literally too late for a new candidate to emerge--the filing deadlines for the primaries had passed--so a roiled G.O.P. electorate turned to the existing, mediocre field for an alternative.
Because the primary-election schedule had been purposely compressed so a nominee would be mathematically chosen by the end of March, it was an article of faith among those considering a '96 race that a serious candidate would have to raise at least $20 million by the end of 1995. As Dole moved swiftly to corral those funds, he had an ally in Texas Senator Phil Gramm. By raising nearly as much as Dole in the year before the voting began, Gramm dashed the hopes of other wannabes. Even such G.O.P. heavyweights as "the formers"--James Baker, who had been Secretary of State, and Dick Cheney, who had been Defense Secretary--shied from the challenge because the fund-raising task appeared so daunting.
Gramm imploded quickly, and the others who would make life difficult for Dole--Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes--were perceived as unserious crank candidates, but only eventually. Despite years of practice, Dole still couldn't say why he wanted the presidency or what he would do if he got it. "It's about us," he said. "It's about you. It's about America. It's about the future, which is where we are headed." The candidate seemed oblivious to the disbelief such inanities provoked. After most performances, he said, "You can feel it, can't you? It's working."
The first un-Dole to fly was Steve Forbes, the "fresh face" millionaire publisher and supply-side devotee whose call for a "simple, flat tax" won wide support in the polls. But Dole's alliance with the Christian Coalition--a marriage of convenience, since the group was ideologically closer to Pat Buchanan but wanted most of all to win--paid off in Iowa on Feb. 12, as coalition members followed their leaders and voted for Dole. Forbes was mostly cooked. But then in New Hampshire eight days later, Buchanan upset the party favorite. That loss reflected Dole's inherent weakness despite two years of hard campaigning. The problem was his learning curve: there wasn't any. On the day before the New Hampshire balloting, Dole expressed surprise that "jobs and the economy" would be issues in the race; to which Buchanan asked incredulously, "Where's he been?"
Where he was in late February was in trouble. Talk of a brokered convention surfaced as party elders wrung their hands. But Dole's team had astutely built a fire wall in South Carolina. Prudently preparing for the danger they didn't expect but were in fact facing after New Hampshire, they had earlier recruited the players, like former Governor Caroll Campbell, who would on March 2 deliver the Southern state everyone deemed critical to capturing the entire region. After South Carolina, the rest of the primary march was anticlimactic. Grand plans were hatched for the months before the August convention. The nominee-presumptive would preside over national-issues forums to demonstrate seriousness of purpose. A running mate and some likely Cabinet choices would be selected, a shadow government to telegraph what an Administration of adults--as opposed to baby boomers--would look like. But Dole, broke and exhausted, had the stomach for none of it. And so he watched from the sidelines with scarcely an answering volley as the Clinton machine--flush with funds because no other Democrat had risen to challenge the President in the primaries--filled the airwaves with a massive ad strategy that would define the coming general-election campaign: Let Dole have the White House, the Democrats argued, and Newt will be running the country; let us keep it, and Clinton will brake the Gingrich revolution's excesses. Thus were the stakes raised and the race set thematically--a perceptual field stacked hopelessly against Dole. It was the clever definitional stroke from which he would never recover.
It wasn't all a straight line to oblivion. As with his earlier speech bashing Hollywood, Dole got a lift when he resigned from the Senate in June and then again in August from a smoothly run G.O.P. convention. His selection of the energetically gifted Jack Kemp, whom Dole had reviled for years, was widely praised. But Dole's verbal and tactical missteps took their toll, confirming the electorate's fast-hardening negative verdict: Clinton was far from the heroic ideal, but Dole simply wasn't up to the job. Facing the hostility of many women voters, Dole tried modifying his antiabortion stance. He called for a "declaration of tolerance" in the G.O.P. platform's pro-life plank. "That's non-negotiable," he said, but quickly caved in to the party's hard-line antiabortion forces. Dole appeared unsure of what he believed and, even worse, seemed powerless to achieve what he wanted even when he knew what it was. To win over the party's most conservative activists--and it is they who largely controlled the nomination process--Dole bent himself out of shape. As a moderate, mainstream Republican in the mold of his hero, Dwight Eisenhower, Dole never became comfortable with his own campaign's core themes and strategy, the tactics and messages designed by his professional handlers that he felt obliged to follow. "I'd been beaten before, and you have to learn from the people who beat you," Dole explained. "So I got those folks and took their advice." And in the process he negated his authenticity--which was really the difference between him and Clinton.
THE ENDGAME By the time Clinton arrived in Chicago for his party's convention in August, nothing that hinted at liberalism was left hanging on him. When the President, who had begun his term advocating the rights of gays in the military, came around to supporting the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition for gay and lesbian unions, Dole was wide-eyed. "Is there anything we're for that he won't jump on?" Dole asked. The answer, essentially, was nothing, as Clinton proved with his support for welfare reform, the single action most responsible for anchoring him in the political center. The President had vetoed two earlier welfare bills but agreed to the third on July 31. Although flawed in Clinton's view, the bill ended welfare as a federal entitlement, thus allowing the President to redeem a key 1992 campaign pledge: his promise to "end welfare as we know it."
Clinton agonized over that third bill, but his eventual assent was made palatable because Republicans had softened their harshest demands. And that happened because Clinton's moves to the middle had retarded Dole's progress, thus causing G.O.P. members of Congress to think first about their own careers, which meant standing for re-election with a law that reformed (or at least changed) welfare, the one program among thousands that had come to symbolize everything wrong with paternalistic Big Government.
Saying Clinton stole the G.O.P.'s positions misses the point. He stole their issues and refinished them with his own less severe, and therefore more acceptable, gloss. Even welfare reform was made easier to swallow for the Democrats' more liberal adherents when the President swore he would "fix" the bill's toughest commands in a second term.
Thus the landscape was set for the fall classic. Clinton's coherence forced Dole to flail. He had adopted much of Steve Forbes' supply-side agenda, but his proposal to slash taxes 15% bumped against his long insistence on cutting the deficit first. Dole seemed more wishy-washy than the President, who was becoming a model of constancy. In fact, voters deadened to sweet-sounding quick fixes became less enamored of Dole's tax-cutting scheme the more he publicized it.
With his "economic package" actually losing him support, Dole swung at Clinton for a rise in drug use among youngsters and pushed a school-choice plan that would permit parents to send their children to private and parochial institutions. Whether those notions could have moved the dial will never be known, for as quickly as he raised them, Dole dropped them. He said Clinton had no core, and when that didn't work, he labeled him an old-fashioned liberal, and that didn't work either. Scandal was left, so Dole tried that, eventually lighting on foreign contributions as the most recent example of Clinton's lack of a moral compass. But most voters, the polls found, had long since concluded that while inherently "untrustworthy," the President was nevertheless trustworthy enough for the White House, and in fact cared more about their own problems than did Dole--which mattered more to them than anything nefarious that the President or his wife or their minions might have done.
The debates changed no one's mind. Even now, so close in time, all that lingers is the memory of Dole's pillow punches--and Clinton's deftness at ignoring them. Near the end, a frustrated Dole struck at the media for being too liberal and at voters in general for failing to "wake up" to Clinton's shortcomings. As desperation reigned, Dole's down-ticket Republican colleagues fled their leader, which is likely to be recorded as a smart move indeed. The G.O.P.'s ability to retain control of the Congress resulted at least in part from arguing that the President's second-term plans should be checked by a Republican legislature--just as the President gained greatly from avowing that he was needed to check them.
COULD DOLE HAVE RUN DIFFERENTLY? Was victory ever in the cards? Perhaps if he had been himself, the difference too few Americans perceived may have resonated more profoundly. At each downturn in his fortunes, Dole promised that "from now on, you'll see the real Bob Dole." In retrospect it seems that the real Bob Dole emerged only once: when he resigned from the Senate. It was a moment when he could have tacked many ways. He was fond of saying that "in a record of more than 12,000 votes, you can make a case for just about anything." So the accomplishments he chose to highlight in that tearful moment were instructive. Dole spoke movingly of his role in creating and expanding the food-stamp and school-lunch programs. He recalled sponsoring both the Women, Infants and Children Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those achievements, he said without saying so explicitly, were his legacy. They embodied his belief that "government does a lot of good things," a line he sometimes dashed off on the stump at the end of one of his tortured, run-on sentences.
So, yes, Dole could have run as the hardheaded but scarcely harsh politician his 35-year congressional career proved him to be. He could probably have won the votes of more women by sticking to his call for "tolerance" in the G.O.P.'s abortion plank. He could have avoided the tax-cut scheme that colored him as just another pandering pol, even though he seemed genuinely to have been converted to supply-side theory by the time 15% became his battle cry in August. He could have built on his critical 1983 participation in the commission that saved Social Security by speaking forcefully about the difficult choices necessary to ensure that it and Medicare will be available in the future. He could, in sum, have run so as to inoculate himself against the charge that he was no better than Clinton, about whom he had said, "No one knows what the President really believes."
Perhaps, given his amazing glibness, Clinton would have won in any case. But as remarkable and professional and airtight as the President's campaign was, the verdict at this remove is that Dole lost it.
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