It’s now possible to construct a credible winning scenario for Bob Dole, where there was none prior to his decision last week to resign from the Senate. The most important change is that Dole no longer has to think like a Senator. It is true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but old dogs can quickly become comfortable in new surroundings. President Clinton’s advantage in seeking re-election is that he already has to think like a President when he shows up for work in the morning. The electrodes in his head are plugged into executive sockets, not legislative sockets. Now we will find out how Dole fares unplugged from Congress after 37 years in those surroundings. He will stick around until June 11, going through decompression, but he already seems refreshed, liberated from having to do the impossible calculations of running the Senate and running for President. I have in the past characterized Dole as a legislative weather vane, whose positions shift according to the pressures of the 99 other men and women with whom he must get along in the club we call the United States Senate. President Clinton is binary, a calculating machine that moves in the direction of the national electorate.
Think of a mouse in a maze, smelling the cheese that awaits if he can make the right yes/no trial and error moves through the maze. The electorate does not mind that Mr. Clinton changes his mind a lot, as long as he keeps moving in the direction of the cheese. The Republican National Committee is throwing its money away by running TV spots showing Clinton apologizing for having raised taxes in 1993. The GOP errs in thinking that the voters will be angrier at being reminded of the tax hike than they are happy at seeing the President telling the nation he is sorry for what he has done and that he has learned his lesson. He is moving toward the cheese.
The central problem Dole has to overcome is the mess that his party has made of the 104th Congress. The electorate blames Newt Gingrich, not really for what he tried to do, but how he tried to do it. He could help Dole by doing what Clinton did, apologizing for pushing beyond the mandate the voters gave the GOP in 1994. Instead, Newt continues to blame everyone but himself, starting with the news media and the Democrats, for misrepresenting his sterling achievements in downsizing Big Government. As long as he does not say he is sorry for what he has done and that he has learned his lesson, the electorate will have a difficult time trusting the GOP with Congress and the White House. Downsizing government is not the cheese the national electorate is after. Its narrow economic goal is an expansion of the private sector that happens to shrink government as a matter of course, in relatively painless fashion. Beyond that, there is a broader set of objectives having to do with the world at large, and our place in it.
The man who will most help Dole offset the public’s concern about Newt is the fellow who will almost certainly replace Dole as Senate Majority Leader. Of all the GOP leaders in the 104th Congress, Trent Lott of Mississippi is the least threatening. Of Jack Kemp’s allies in the Reagan Revolution, the amigos as they call themselves, Senator Lott is the most like Kemp in outlook and personality, the most like Ronald Reagan, in fact. He is a sunny guy, a conservative who not only likes Democrats, but manages to attract almost half the black vote in Mississippi -- which is why I’ve always had Trent Lott high on my list of presidential timber in the GOP. Speaker Gingrich is a heroic figure, but he does sulk, bear grudges and punish his friends when they disappoint him. [Bob Novak reported in his weekend column that Newt has refused to speak to Kemp in the two months since Jack endorsed Steve Forbes over Bob Dole for President.] If you saw "Meet the Press" yesterday, you saw Trent Lott squabbling with Senate Minority Whip Tom Daschle over the legislative gridlock and who is to blame. Just at the point when it seemed they would escalate to nastiness, it was Lott who announced cheerfully he would try harder in the future -- and you could see Daschle melt into a pleasant agreement. If there is one Republican who can rescue the 104th Congress from ending on a sour note and going down in history as a failure it is Lott. He is in a position to revive discussions with President Clinton about a budget reconciliation that leads to a de minimus seven-year balanced budget. Gingrich last week announced that both he and the new Majority Leader would be “junior partners” to Dole, but Lott would make a big mistake in forgetting that the nation gave the 104th Congress a job to do -- and that he should not subordinate his work to anything that might or might not happen in the 105th.
It is now conventional wisdom that a budget reconciliation would help Clinton, not Dole, because it would indicate a Democratic White House and GOP Congress can work together. The White House now assumes nothing serious can be achieved in this campaign mode. Yet it would not surprise me to see Trent Lott cheerfully putting together a compromise that can be signed into law, with the leadership of both parties taking pride in the achievement and not worrying about who will get more credit vis a vis the November elections. I believe it will actually help Dole with his central problem if the nation could see that, if Dole were elected, Lott would be there to restrain Newt’s more aggressive downsizing impulses.
The most it could do, however, is help. Dole has a long way to go before he will be seen as the right man for the job, even if the electorate raises its opinion of the GOP Congress. He will be making a series of speeches in the weeks ahead on social, cultural and economic topics. There is now a great deal of fussing in his campaign entourage about tax cutting becoming his secret weapon -- as an adjunct to his cultural conservatism. Bob Novak reports today that both Newt and RNC Chairman Haley Barbour are telling Dole he must embrace some sort of flat tax to have any impact on Clinton. Dole is even meeting with Steve Forbes next week to ask his advice. He also has met with a variety of economists in search of the perfect tax cut and has apparently commissioned Stanford’s John Taylor, who was a member of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, to draft a new package. The trouble with all this is that he soon may be plugged into 99 new sockets of economic advisors, and with no way of telling what’s best, he will divide by 99 for an answer.
In any case, I don’t believe the national electorate is going to be terribly impressed with a Dole shopping list of do’s and don’ts. It is the broader vision that has always eluded him, a sense not of the cheese, but of how to get to it. In the same way the RNC makes the mistake of advertising President Clinton’s change of heart on taxes, Dole and his GOP advisors are no match for President Clinton and his team. Few Republicans of Dole’s flavor or vintage really understand what it is that people see in Democrats, which means they have difficulty expanding their base. His team will spend another fortune stressing Dole’s “character” over the President’s, stressing his “decisiveness” in foreign policy, stressing his “toughness” on crime and cultural matters -- when all the while the people at the bottom of the pile worry that Dole has too much of each. In saying he would close the gender gap by increasing the penalty for rape, Dole exhibited the tin ear he has at that level. The gender gap exists because of Dole’s hard edges. He does have time to get it right, but I doubt he will be able to do it without Kemp as his running mate. It is a truism in politics that policy is personnel. Unless the electorate knows that President Dole would have to get past Vice President Kemp before he could throw the widows and orphans out into the snow, he probably will not be able to make it. Now that he is unplugged from the Senate, at least, he may be able to figure that out on his own.