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DON'T COUNT ON DOLE

12:00 AM, Jul 22, 1996 • By DAVID FRUM
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This is an awful moment for Bob Dole. He has spent nearly all the money he legally can to win the nomination, and he's not yet permitted to start spending the money earmarked for the general election. To make his case, he must rely entirely on his own words -- and Bob Dole has never been good with words.


Dole will have better moments. But what about his supporters? Obviously America's conservatives will -- and should -- hope that Bob Dole wins in November, if only because there is no other way for Bill Clinton to lose. But Dole could not possibly be signaling more clearly his indifference to, even his disdain for, the conservatives for whose support he once begged. The real risk conservatives are running this election season is not that Clinton will be reelected; it's that he will be replaced by a man uninterested in conservative ideas, hostile to conservatives as individuals, and bent on breaking the conservative grip on the Republican party.


Despite the pressing of a team of eminent conservative economists, Dole has made it clear that he's reluctant to pledge himself to cut taxes. The more often he's asked, the less intelligible become his views on abortion. He has rebuffed the staffers who have urged him to take a strong stand in favor of the California Civil Rights Initiative and against quotas. He has nothing beyond the vaguest generalities to offer on crime, immigration, or health care. In New Hampshire he parroted Pat Buchanan's fulminations against treacherous foreign traders and overpaid corporate executives. True, on one memorable occasion he denounced the entertainment industry for producing violent and perverse movies and songs. But as soon as Dole had knocked Phil Gramm out of the race, his concern for social conservatism appeared to evaporate. And even at the time, Dole's championing of the cause of wholesome family entertainment seemed tinged with self-amused irony -- as if he wanted us all to know how preposterous he found the whole exercise, as if he found conservatives and their preoccupations so silly that he could not even pander to them with a straight face.


This record does not merely reflect an election season dash to the middle. About the only unifying theme one can detect in Dole's recent senatorial career is a determination to exasperate conservatives. He fought hard to win a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution in 1995 -- but not nearly as hard for the spending cuts that would have actually pulled the budget into balance. He flirted with an endorsement of the main themes of the Clinton health-care plan, and actually did endorse the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill whose probable effects would push the country toward some future version of Clintoncare.


You don't need to take a critic's word for it. On June 11, Dole put a remarkable summation of his career on the record. In his leave-taking speech from the U.S. Senate, he singled out six accomplishments from his nearly 30 years in that chamber as worthy of special pride: his work to defend agriculture subsidies; his opposition to cutting off aid to South Vietnam in the last desperate hours of the struggle against communism; the expansion of food stamps and other low-income nutrition programs; the management of the Martin Luther King holiday bill; the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act; and the 1983 Social Security compromise that salvaged the pension system by accelerating increases in the payroll tax.


Bravo to him for sticking by America's allies to the last. On Vietnam, as on defense issues and matters of tional honor generally, Dole's record is exemplary. But look at what Dole thinks of his domestic accomplishments. On June 11, he said not one word about the budget struggle of 1995. Nothing about the battle over health care, the most important proposed change in social policy in a decade. There was no praise for the Reagan tax cuts or any other of the Reagan achievements, for many of which Dole deserves some credit. Dole's strong pro-life voting record went unmentioned. So too (although this would be asking a lot) did his far-sighted opposition to the Medicare and Medicaid programs back in 1964 and 1965.