Unless there is a Whitewater smoking gun that shows up by Labor Day, President Clinton will not be dented by the “character issue” on which the Republicans hope to ride to the White House. The electorate knows exactly what it has in Bill Clinton and is quite prepared to give him a second term no matter how many of his old friends become convicted felons. The ordinary Republican mind set does not comprehend that the vast majority of the American people do not have the luxury of automatically choosing personality over policy -- saints over sinners. As it stands, they would rather ride out the balance of the century with Clinton and gridlock than turn the government over to Dole-Gingrich. With both the Senator and the Speaker announcing over the weekend that the party’s highest priority in this election year will be a promise to balance the budget, they leave the electorate no choice. A week or two ago, it still seemed possible that Bob Dole would be able to establish his footing as the candidate who would put growth above all other considerations, but the last several days have discouraged that hope. The very idea of scheduling one more vote on a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, as his Senate swan song, reminds the electorate that Dole is about pessimism, austerity and the past.
There has been a flurry of meetings and talk regarding some sort of tax-cutting plank that Dole will take on the hustings. Even the best of the ideas floating around are not very good. The idea of rolling back the tax codes to where they were prior to the Bush tax hikes of 1991 has a nice sound at first. It has several monumental problems. When you realize how far it is from the total restructuring of the federal tax codes that we should be talking about, it seems feeble indeed. Then, when you try to imagine Dole defending this or some lesser proposal with the kind of conviction and passion it will take to overcome the cynicism of the electorate, you cannot see it happen.
On "Meet the Press" Sunday, Tim Russert hounded Newt Gingrich on how the GOP would hope to offset the $630 billion revenue loss which the Congressional Budget Office says such a tax cut would cost over seven years. As glib as he is compared to Dole, Newt could only dance away from the question, mumbling about having to phase it in. House Ways&Means Chairman Bill Archer, on the sidelines, is throwing cold water on all of these proposed tax cuts. The Clinton political team eagerly awaits the opportunity to ridicule Dole to the point where he is forced to retreat, thereby solidifying the electorate’s cynicism about a Dole presidency. At the same time, on the stump, Dole continues to throw around promises of a $500 kiddie credit, which was the worst item in Newt’s Contract With America. He also has backed a $500 charity tax credit, which permits each of us to give $500 to the charity of our choice and deduct the entire $500 from our federal tax liability. We might as well ask Congress to appropriate $50 billion a year and hand it out to anyone who qualifies as a charity. The idea is so dumb it is embarrassing, yet Dole has wrapped his arms around it. The Wall Street Journal editors, believe it or not, are taking credit for citing the idea as a good one two years ago. This is more of the right-wing social engineering that began afflicting the GOP and its intellectual cadres as soon as they won control of Congress in 1994.
There is a sense among Democrats that “the race is tightening up” between the President and Dole. This is only because they genuinely fear the voters will become thoroughly disgusted with Clinton and the character issue as the felony convictions of his friends mount. Ted Van Dyk, an Establishment Democrat who worked for Hubert Humphrey in the old days, startled the readers of The Wall Street Journal on Monday by warning that the President might actually be forced to resign. His op-ed essay was disguised as contingency planning, in the event the President loses the capacity to govern in the same way his protégé -- Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker -- lost his last week. Van Dyk, who is close to Vice President Al Gore, suggested we mentally prepare ourselves for a Gore candidacy. New York Times columnist William Safire last week suggested that President Clinton should think of “flipping” the Clinton-Gore ticket to Gore-Clinton, to dilute the character issue. The grapevine is abuzz with wild speculation about what to expect next. Tongues are wagging in every world capital about the possibility that there is a Whitewater smoking gun working its way to the surface, and that a Clinton resignation may wind up being the flip side of the Nixon resignation. In a way, the symmetry suggests a settling of scores within the political Establishment. It is no coincidence that The Wall Street Journal has been as rabid in its pursuit of Clinton as The Washington Post and the NYTimes were in bringing down RMN over a two-bit Watergate burglary.
My best guess is that history is not all that neat and symmetrical, and that a weakened President Clinton will survive the GOP onslaught and the special prosecutors. It helps enormously that the stock market is booming; it was in a horrible decline at the time of Watergate. Clinton should be able to campaign right up to November 5 with every prospect of winning re-election. Even if every person who votes for him wishes they didn’t have to, it will not turn the election to Bob Dole. When you note that only 7% of black Americans have a positive opinion of Newt Gingrich and that 65% are negative, and that only 17% of women have a positive opinion of him, for example, you can understand why Dole will not close the gap against Clinton. The poorer people are, the more anxious they are about their families and their futures, the more likely they will come out to vote for Clinton in November. It was this anxiety vote that turned out in November 1986 to take the U.S. Senate away from the Republicans, worried that the last two years of the Reagan White House might be tough on those with no cushion to see them through.
Grass-roots Republicans are not the problem. It is the party institution, as it has evolved in the last half century, which has forced normally reasonable men like Newt Gingrich to lose perspective once he gets his hands on the levers of power. On "Meet the Press" Sunday, when asked to cite the biggest mistake he made as Speaker, he humbly allowed that he erred in holding too many press conferences! He can’t admit the substance of his work has been deeply flawed. He has to blame the electorate for not being smart enough to know how much good he tried to do for it. If only he had not told the voters what he was doing, he would be popular. For his part, Bob Dole is even more deeply embedded in the kind of Republican orthodoxy that reached its zenith in Richard Nixon’s truncated second term. Dole’s chief of staff, Sheila Burke, upon whom he relies, knows that Dole should not try to be someone he is not. She resists the pressures from those who are trying to turn him into an optimist, a tax-cutting Happy Warrior. Dole, though, clearly worries that the voters are not interested in the real Dole, which he would prefer to be.
With these unpalatable, paradoxical choices facing the national electorate, the possibilities of the Reform Party producing a more acceptable choice become greater day by day. This weekend, former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm indicated he would be willing to run at the top of the ticket if Ross Perot would announce he would stand aside. Perot will stand aside, but not for Lamm. It’s theoretically possible to imagine Perot winning in November, with the right message and a serious running mate, but not with Lamm. As I have been indicating of late, I believe there will be other possibilities before too long. On the eve of a new millennium, the people of the most important nation on earth need and deserve more palatable options. They’ll get them, I think.