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No Excuses, No Alibis

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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The search is on among those who would learn nothing from history for the large, irresistible forces that made this an unwinnable election for the Republicans. There are none. The reason for the Republican defeat is to be found not in the economy, not in the opponent, not in the stars, but in the candidate. The most important fact about the 1996 presidential campaign for Republicans is that, but for Dole (and Kemp), it was winnable.

Now, one could at this point get a little metapolitical and blame the nominating process that gave us this candidate. Or blame the psychological inclination of Republicans, dating back 40 years, to nominate the next senior guy in line. But whether anyone else could have been chosen by the Republicans is a question best left to the metaphysicians. In this year, in this universe, Republicans chose Dole. And Dole lost it.

The inevitability theorists contend that no one could have won an election against an incumbent president enjoying 5.2 percent unemployment, 3 percent inflation, and 3 percent growth. Untrue. Exactly two years ago, at the midterm elections of 1994, economic conditions were nearly identical -- 5.6 percent unemployment, 2.7 percent inflation, 3 percent growth. Yet Clinton was decisively repudiated. Indeed, the entire ruling Democratic establishment was repudiated. Democrats were not just stripped of control of Congress, but humiliated by the defeat of dozens of incumbents, including the speaker of the House. Meanwhile, every one of the 177 Republican incumbents running for reelection to the House, Senate, or governorships won.

Economy is not destiny. True, with a weak economy even Dole might have beaten Clinton. But that is not saying much. Even with a strong economy Clinton's support was always broad and thin. His tepid popularity cannot compare to the kind of enthusiastic backing that made, say, Reagan in 1984 or Johnson in 1964 truly unbeatable. Clinton enjoyed none of Reagan's reservoir of loyal personal support. And no one feels a sense of shared political mission with Clinton, the way so many did with Johnson in 1964.

Reagan spawned vast numbers of Reaganites. He created a whole class of voters known as Reagan Democrats. The only Clintonites in the country are the people who work for Clinton in the White House. Clinton never could get a majority of voters to pull the lever for him. Of the two-term presidents since FDR, Eisenhower was reelected with 56 percent of the vote, the other three (Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan) with right around 60 percent.

Yes, Clinton is one of the great natural politicians of our time, a consummate campaigner with an uncanny ability to extricate himself by guile and mendacity, as needed, from one self-inflicted disaster after another. Indeed, his ability this year actually to turn his reputation for personal sexual scandals to his own benefit stands as one the great feats of political jujitsu of all time.

By implying that any treatment of his financial or offcial misconduct (Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate) was a species of "character attack," i.e., as ad hominem as criticism of his sexual dalliances, he managed for months (till the Huang affair simply overloaded the circuits) to deflect a whole line of potentially devastating attacks on administration corruption.

It was a contemptible defense, but extremely effective. One almost has to admire its audacity, the sheer nervy skill of rendering out of bounds any questioning of the scandals of this most scandal-ridden administration since Nixon's. But two things need to be said about that slickness.

First, it was, and is, a response to a fundamental political weakness. It was desperation defense. It worked, but it reveals how vulnerable this candidacy really was, how deep were the suspicion, distaste, and distrust that Clinton was fending off.

Second, while it needed a compliant and complicit press to work, it also needed an inept and inarticulate opponent. It was Dole's -- and Kemp's -- job to make corruption an issue. It was not that hard to do. One merely had to confront Clinton's sleight-of-hand directly and draw a clear distinction between (a) sexual misconduct, which Dole could graciously have offered to declare out of bounds (although the very declaration would have served to highlight it, the kind of maneuver of which Clinton is a master) and (b) the abuses of power, nepotism, obstruction of justice, and selling of favors uncovered almost weekly in his administration.

In the last week of the campaign, Ross Perot delivered a series of highly pointed, coherent attacks on just this subject. Dole never came close to making the case. He would repeat the word trust in triplicate, holler " where's the outrage," declare himself a man of his word, and rest his case.