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No Excuses, No Alibis

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