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No Excuses, No Alibis

11:00 PM, Nov 17, 1996 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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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.