To get a better feel for the presidential election, try thinking of it as a family matter, with the American people now occupied with the quadrennial ritual of choosing the head of household. The current President, Mr. Clinton, represents the Mommy Party, which traditionally gives priority to the interests of the community over the interests of the individual. He is being challenged by Bob Dole, who represents the Daddy Party, which traditionally is the advocate of the interests of the individual. In their debate Sunday night in Hartford, Dole definitely wore the pants in the family. He was good humored, but stern and gruff, a plain-spoken man who has lived his life to the high civic and moral standards he learned as a boy. He was never taught discrimination of religion or race. The Constitution and the Bible meant what they said, and that was that. In those old-fashioned days, the traditional father represented authority and discipline, the mother stood for love and generosity of spirit. The father does not send mixed signals to the children, yet they fear his wrath. Because they know the rules of behavior he laid down, they rarely need be punished. A raised eyebrow hurts as much as the strap. The traditional father of Main Street America never raised his hand or his voice to the mother, and when she interceded diplomatically on behalf of the children, he would invariably melt and give way. He was gentle at his core, taught by his own mother to have a soft spot for the unfortunate.
We saw this kind of Dole on Sunday night in the context of father of our national family and I thought he clearly won the debate, which was more of a conversation between Father and Mother. At a distance, Dole at times appears mean-spirited, because of his gruff demeanor. He really isn’t, and it was heartening to watch him in his conversation with the President and know that the country was surely finding him nicer than they have been thinking he was. Some thought he was being mean when he admonished the President for having called President Bush “Mr. Bush” in their 1992 debates, but I saw a fatherly reprimand for a violation of proprieties, a sliding of standards. In the same way, Dole was being traditional, old-fashioned, in refusing to publicly discuss another man’s character, when he was offered the chance to smear the President. It was in keeping with this plain-spokenness that Dole saw the President’s equivocation about pardons for his friends as a demeaning of his office. Dole told him the proper response was “no comment.” In these small ways, Dole was instructing Bill Clinton on the importance of a bridge to the past.
It was impossible not to notice the President’s defensiveness throughout the evening. He seemed genuinely intimidated by Dole, a man he clearly likes and respects, who has helped him over many rough spots in his presidency. The President will always be insecure as father of the national family, when all he wants more than anything else is to be loved. It is as the provider in the national household that Mr. Clinton feels most insecure, and it had a telling effect on him when Dole disparaged the idea that the country is better off now than it was four years ago. Mr. Clinton can memorize all the statistics which his advisors feed him, telling him he has been successful in that regard, but he seems to know he really has not, seeing the continuing anxiety in the family that he can not resolve. Especially at the bottom of the pyramid, people are struggling as hard now to make ends meet as they were four years ago. The economy has not had a single year of growth as high as the 3.65% rise of the last year of the Bush administration. The President is trapped in a low-growth model that has not much chance of improving national or household balance sheets over the next quarter century. It would take 30 years to double the economy’s size at a 2˝% annual growth rate, if there were no intermediate recession in all that time. It is truly a dismal vision -- which he believes is the best we can hope for. To Dole’s assertions that we can grow much faster with the proposed Republican tax program, the President can only cite 500 unnamed economists and Senator Al D’Amato in opposition.
The President’s insecurities were just as evident in discussion of foreign policy. Dole is being accused of gross misstatement in saying the President has deployed more troops than any other President in history, but Dole meant more deployments -- Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kuwait -- in less than four years. (A few weeks ago, our Ambassador to Mexico offered military assistance to Mexico City in putting down rebellions caused by peso devaluation, which the U.S. incited.) What Dole was telling the President Sunday night was that he cannot continue to give mixed signals to delinquent kids who are constantly looking for ways to get away with something they shouldn’t. If father tells the kids that if they misbehave at the table, they will go to bed without supper, he cannot send a box lunch to their bedroom. The fact has been that President Clinton still does not know how to conduct foreign policy and does not know how to be Commander-in-Chief. When Donald Rumsfeld was President Nixon’s Defense Secretary, he coined the phrase, “Weakness is provocative.” Indecisiveness, ambiguity, inattentiveness are provocative too. Rumsfeld, now Dole’s campaign chairman, is absolutely correct in asserting that the President continues to make up foreign policy as it comes along, peering each day in his “in basket” for a problem created elsewhere.
The polls indicate half the viewers thought the President won, but I don’t take that too seriously. As the national family reflects on Sunday night, the gap has been narrowing. The gender gap remains the source of Bob Dole’s weakness in the race, and a poll asking if Dole did better than they thought he would produced a 74% positive, 14% negative. The latest Reuters poll shows Clinton’s lead down to 5%, with Republicans who had thought of voting for Clinton coming back to Dole. Even among women who are worried that Newt Gingrich will take bread off the table in order to feed the rich, there is a concern that this President, as hard as he may try, is afraid of the future and can only hope his second term will be up before it arrives. My 79-year-old mother still says she will vote for Clinton after watching the debate. Although she adores Jack Kemp, she still worries that Dole is too harsh in foreign policy, that he would not welcome home the prodigal sons. Still, she was impressed Sunday night and allowed that he “might make a good President.” Some hardline GOP journalists complained that Dole should have stuck the sword into the President instead of holding back Sunday. It was that kind of restraint, though, that softened my mother -- especially when Dole told Clinton rather gently that he knows how hard the Middle East is to deal with. The President nodded a grateful thank you, as if he had been patted on the head. When he later said, “I think you can see how much we like each other,” the President was asking us to notice how much Dole likes him.
If a stranger from another world had tuned in Sunday night and could observe only the body language, he almost surely would have guessed Dole the dominant figure, the daddy, the father of the national family. The President was not enjoying himself at all, and wanted the debate to be over. Four years ago in the presidential debates, it was Bill Clinton, fresh from Arkansas, who seemed by his demeanor and body language to have the world by the tail, the dominant figure. The President back then, George Bush, was the passive figure, almost a disinterested observer, checking his watch, wanting to go home. In his debate with Vice President Gore tomorrow night, Kemp should talk to him like a brother, hoping to persuade him that as much as he loves the President, Bob Dole would make a better head of household.