WASHINGTON -- After a campaign appearance in New Hampshire way back last January, Bob Dole was asked why he didn't spend more time attacking President Clinton. The problem, Mr. Dole replied with some asperity, is that as the Senate majority leader he must deal with the president and not just "run around the country shooting off my mouth."
There was no question at the time that Mr. Dole was talking about Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the rival for the presidential nomination who has been most successful in getting under his skin. And there is little question that Mr. Dole feels precisely the same way today in trying to fashion a position for himself and his party on President Clinton's decision to send 20,000 troops to Bosnia.
The contrast is clear. Senator Dole says he is trying to find a way to support the president. Those who know him take him at his word. But Mr. Gramm and Patrick Buchanan and most of the other Republicans -- Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana is an exception -- are in full cry, braying about how they will resist to the bitter end any support for Mr. Clinton's policy.
At the most superficial level, this is conventional politics. Opinion polls show most Americans opposed to sending the troops to Bosnia and these Republican statesmen are rushing to the front of the parade. Beyond that, they recognize that there is great risk in the Clinton policy and they want to be positioned to yell "I told you so" if the initiative goes sour and there are heavy American casualties.
The push to be No. 2
More to the immediate point, however, Messrs. Gramm and Buchanan, Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes seem bent on using the issue to demonstrate the differences between themselves and Bob Dole. The game in the Republican contest is still which candidate can emerge as the chief rival to the Senate leader in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
But as Senators Dole and Lugar seem to understand, this is both cheap and short-sighted politics. For President Clinton, the hard reality is that if the Bosnia operation succeeds, he can expect little lasting credit from the electorate. The experience of President Bush in successfully promulgating the war in the Persian Gulf only to be buried in the 1992 election makes it clear that voters have little interest in foreign-policy questions that do not involve some direct threat to the security of the United States.
And if the Clinton initiative fails, the president is going to take the blame. Indeed, if the failure is spectacular, played out on television screens showing those rows of flag-draped coffins at Dover Air Force Base, his chance for re-election may be lost.
The notion that support for President Clinton on Bosnia will be a determinative issue in the Republican contest also is laughable. It is impossible to imagine many primary voters turning against Senator Dole because he backed the president. Too many other issues -- tax policy, for example -- can be used as litmus tests and have some direct meaning for voters.
Too wary of Gramm
Senator Dole's problem as a candidate all year has been that he has been too responsive to the perceived threat from Senator Gramm, who is still floundering in the opinion polls, and to the hard-edged rhetoric of Mr. Buchanan, who probably has more devout support than anyone in the field.
Because he has been spooked by the far right, Mr. Dole has seemed to bend himself out of shape on some issues. His scolding of Hollywood, for example, may reflect the national consensus on violence in the movies but it is not the kind of issue to which Bob Dole has paid much attention in the past. And it is not the kind of issue on which he feels completely comfortable.
Thus, in a sense, it could be said that the Bosnia issue has unmasked Mr. Dole and shown him for what he is -- a politician with some sense of responsibility that goes beyond partisanship. And it has shown some of his competitors to be willing to play the political hack if that looks like the right way to go.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.