IT'S THE CAMPAIGN, STUPID
No Excuses, No Alibis
11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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.
Perhaps the apotheosis of this tactical ineptitude occurred when the Huang- Indogate scandal erupted. This was a gift to Republicans. It came not from any effort by Dole but from revelations in the press. A functionary of a foreign conglomerate gets a high Commerce Department post with security clearance on sensitive trade matters. Later he is made a DNC vice president for money-raking. And rake he does.
An Indonesian gardener gives $ 425,000 to the Democratic National Committee. Illegal South Korean gifts are uncovered. Money is raised and funds laundered in a Buddhist temple. How does Dole handle this golden opportunity handed to him just in time for the presidential debates?
Midway through a response to a question about political participation and voter turnout, he mouths a tortured aside, a string of disconnected nouns -- Indonesia, rich people, L.A. Times, 250,000 dollars -- offered up in a syntactical mess that even insiders had trouble deciphering. And the most important phrase -- "Democratic National Committee," the destination of all this funny money, the source of this corruption -- never made it into Dole's aside at all.
But Dole did not satisfy himself with incomprehensibility. A few days later, just as interest was mounting in the Huang affair, Dole changed the subject. In a move that the Clinton campaign could only have dreamed of, he delivered a speech on campaign-finance reform.
This was sheer madness. Instead of making the issue the laws that Clinton had already broken, Dole was proposing new laws. And it not only changed the subject. It provided the Democrats with an instant counterpunch. They rushed onto the airwaves with an ad correctly pointing out that Dole had, in fact, resisted campaign finance reform for years.
Instantly, the issue of Democratic corruption was turned into an issue of Dole hypocrisy. If the press hadn't carried on with its further investigations of the Huang affair, the issue would have died completely. Finally, under pressure not from Dole but from the press, Clinton had to address the question in a speech on the eve of the election. Naturally, he too proposed campaign finance reform. It took the Washington Post editorial page to point out the sheer audacity of Clinton's maneuver. Dole could not manage it.
A final flourish of tactical incompetence occurred in the waning days of the campaign with Dole's desperate attempt to get Perot to abdicate the race in his favor. There was not a chance in the world that Perot was going to do this. There was every chance in the world the story would leak and embarrass Dole.
The story leaked. Dole was embarrassed. But far more important than embarrassment was the fact that Dole had thus created yet another distraction. At a time when Dole was desperately trying to make an impression on the national consciousness as the alternative for those still uncomfortable with Clinton, Dole's maladroit maneuver gratuitously resurrected Perot's candidacy. Heretofore, Perot's infomercials and speeches had been totally ignored. He had been excluded from the debates. He was at 3 percent in the polls and going nowhere.
Dole's spurned entreaty did not just get Perot several days of coverage. It forced the press to treat him for the rest of the campaign as a serious candidate. After all, Dole had. He succeeded in conferring upon Perot's candidacy a legitimacy that had eluded it for months. The rest of the race was treated as three way, helping Perot climb from 3 percent to an 8 percent finish. That 5 percent represented lots of people fleeing Clinton. They had been given an alternative place to park their protest -- by Dole.
A more fundamental problem with Dole's campaign as that he was too worldly to take it seriously. For Clinton, campaigning is life; governing is the price he has to pay to keep doing it. For George Bush, campaigning was a chore; for a man whose previous posts had almost all been appointive, campaigning was an exceptionally clumsy and common appointment process, grubby business to be gotten out of the way.
For Dole, campaigning, like politics, was a game, yet another of the political arts, most of which he is good at. Unlike Bush, Dole did not despise the game. He was at once amused and puzzled by it. He could not quite figure it out. But figure and muse and talk about it he did plenty.
His penchant for referring to himself in the third person was more than a rhetorical tic; it was a true reflection of his approach to running. He was detached. He stood outside his own campaign. Rather than engaging in it, he appeared to be observing. He became a commentator on his own campaign, an ironic critic.
The irony was deadly. For example, after months of to-ing and fro-ing on the California Civil Rights Initiative, the anti-racial-preference referendum, he finally decided with a few days left in the campaign to come out strongly in favor. Asked why by a TV reporter, he answered, "It is an important issue, a wedge issue."
Now, "wedge issue" is what Democrats call a controversy that they would prefer not to have discussed because most people oppose it for good reason. After all, any issue that divides people -- i.e., any political issue of any consequence -- might be called a wedge issue. But Democrats never call, say, the minimum wage a wedge issue even though it certainly places a wedge between employer and employee. Issues that prove awkward for their own racial or feminist constituencies, Democrats invariably stigmatize as "wedge."
And now Dole, the commentator, proceeds to endorse that stigmatization. He both tacitly accepts the Democratic characterization of CCRI as an illegitimate issue designed to win votes by creating "division" and reveals his own deep ambivalence about affirmative action. His ironic endorsement of CCRI did not help Dole a bit in California, where he lost big (by 13.5 points) . Indeed, its main effect was to hurt CCRI. By the end, CCRI proponents were begging the Republicans to stay out of their campaign.
This was no isolated slip. Dole spent much of the campaign musing about whether he ought to make certain issues into issues. The predictable result was to undermine whatever stance he finally took.
First, there was the tax cut. Dole publicly agonized for weeks whether or not to go for it, thus focusing attention not on the economics of the question but on the psychology and the politics: Was this reach for an un- Dole-like cut a sign of faithlesshess and opportunism? These were not questions invented by the press. They were questions Dole put to himself and then broadcast -- thus detracting totally from the substance of the issue.
And here was an issue ready-made: a president who had gone back and forth on middle-class tax cuts at least three times since 1992 and who was now shamelessly proposing a balanced budget as if he had invented it -- after having fiercely resisted it for three years. Yet Dole's Hamlet-like behavior on taxes managed to turn the tax issue into this: Had Dole betrayed 30 years of principle on balanced budgets by now proposing a supply-side tax cut?
The most famous of Dole's self-immolations, however, occurred on the " character issue." For weeks Dole fretted publicly about the propriety of raising the question. Publicizing its own internal debates, Dole's staff managed to produce weeks of headlines on the theme "Will Dole make character an issue?" No Clinton strategist could have devised a more effective way to deflect debate from the central weakness of Clinton's candidacy.
Would Dole go negative? Should Dole do negative? That was the story. After weeks of temporizing, Dole did finally do a bit of flailing on "character." But by that time, the country had grown so weary of his musings, so cynical about the revelations that had gone uncommented upon, that he had lost the issue. After Democrats had poured tens of millions of dollars throughout the first half of 1996 into devastating negative campaign ads against Dole and the Republicans, Dole managed with his own waffling to highlight and delegitimize his own few pathetic stabs at "negativity." Polls showed that by a huge margin voters thought Dole's campaign more negative than Clinton's. True, press bias encouraged this misperception. But Dole's own actions, his trumpeted ambivalence and misgivings, created the misperception in the first place.
Dole's reluctance to go on the offensive had deep roots. He had come out of the '76 campaign characterized as a hatchet man. He seemed intent this time on undoing that image. At times it seemed as if undoing that image was more important than winning this election. One can understand the Dole campaigns spending the first few months trying to establish the warmth and humanity of the candidate. That is standard campaign tactics. Warm and fuzzy was the theme, indeed the purpose, of that orgy of feeling in San Diego.
But this defensiveness, this compulsion to prove at every turn that Dole was not the monster that the press and Democratic "Dole/Gingrich" commercials had made him out to be, never stopped. In the first presidential debate, for example, Clinton savagely attacked Dole's Medicare proposals as leading to one calamity after another. Dole rebutted not one detail. His response was this: His mother had been on Medicare, he loved his mom, and he thus would never do anything to hurt her. QED.
This was not just a reflection of Dole's inability to engage Clinton intellectually. It was also a reflection of the fundamental defensiveness of his whole campaign. Dole proceeded to recall with pride his days in Kansas signing welfare checks. A campaign that should have been about Clintons probity became a campaign about Dole's decency. In the end, Dole won on decency. And lost the election.
Dole did, however, have one huge handicap in trying to focus the campaign on Clinton's character: his running mate. Jack Kemp declared that questioning character was beneath his dignity -- and beneath Dole's, to boot, thus making it even more difficult for Dole to raise the issue.
It should have been Kemp's job to highlight, relentlessly, the scandals and corruption of this administration. That is not beneath a vice-presidential candidate. That is his job. Al Gore found it not at all difficult to attack the flip-flops, the inconsistencies, the duplicity, everything he could about Bob Dole.
Clinton's ethics were certainly a legitimate issue. And had Kemp made the case, he would have spared Dole -- with his palpable ambivalence and agonizing ineffectiveness -- the ordeal of having to make it himself. But Kemp preferred to talk about capital-gains taxes. He preferred to indulge himself by campaigning in hopelessly Democratic precincts, in barrios and black churches -- appearances that could bring no benefit to Dole's electoral chances, but much to Kemp's amour propre and standing in the liberal media.
The campaign Kemp conducted was a disgrace. He not only refused to go on the attack, but, in his one performance before a national audience, did not lift a finger in defense of Dole. It was an act of deep disloyalty to the man who had rescued him from oblivion.
Given the vulnerability of the incumbent, a more tactically adept challenger could have won this year. But Dole's deepest failing was not tactical -- it was strategic, one might even say philosophical. He had only the most tenuous hold on the conservative idea. The great irony of this campaign is that, in a country where the ideological tide is running inexorably to the right, the party of the right is unable to nominate a candidate who can articulate its ideas.
Clinton could. After the debacle of 1994, he moved relentlessly to the right on welfare, on school choice, on V-chips, on teen curfews, on school uniforms. Meanwhile, Dole could not rouse himself in the first presidential debate even to raise such issues as affirmative action and partial-birth abortion.
Instead, Dole ran on character, his character. He ran as the heir to the ideologically bereft Gerald Ford and George Bush. He had offered, in one particularly comical encounter with Republican faithful, to be Ronald Reagan if they really wanted him to. But he couldn't. He did not understand nor could he articulate the simplest conservative idea.
"The bottom line, in retrospect, is this was not a winnable race," said John Buckley, Dole's communications director, on Election Night. Nonsense. Clinton had two huge vulnerabilities. His character, for all of his charm, was deeply distrusted. And his ideology, for all his dissimulation, was the more liberal. He was beatable on either count. Dole simply could not make the case.
By Charles Krauthammer