WASHINGTON -- At one level, it's hard to argue with the politics of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's attack on President Clinton's judicial appointments and on the American Bar Association. Lawyers, after all, are even less popular than politicians or reporters.
But it is equally hard to understand the emphasis the Republican nominee-presumptive is placing on ideology. Most voters may not like "liberalism," but there is no evidence that these labels have much to do with how they decide on a presidential candidate.
In his speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Senator Dole was warning about the consequences on the courts of another four years of President Clinton in the White House. "We could lock in liberal judicial activism for the next generation, and the social landscape could change dramatically," he said. "More federal intrusion in the lives of average Americans. More centralized power in Washington. Less freedom of religious expression. More rights for criminals -- and more arrogant disregard of the rights of law-abiding citizens."
That is a pretty grim picture, but it is hard to imagine that many voters are so alarmed about the courts that they have given the issue a high priority. On the contrary, opinion polls have shown repeatedly in past presidential elections that few voters even consider the power to make appointments to the Supreme Court a significant issue, although it clearly should be.
The Dole rhetoric is part of a pattern of speeches and statements intended to draw sharp ideological distinctions between himself and the Democratic president. The same has been true of his declarations on such topics as abortion, gun control, Hollywood sex and violence and the "liberal press."
The latter is particularly curious because the press generally has been far more often positive than negative in its view of the Senate leader. It is an open secret that many, perhaps most, of the reporters who cover Congress and national politics like Mr. Dole, admire his ability to function effectively in the Senate and enjoy his acerbic wit.
The wrong audience
The senator's rhetoric is also striking because it seems to be directed at the wrong audience in the electorate. He is still appealing to the far right of the Republican Party, which may have been necessary during the primaries but is hardly required now. Instead, the conventional strategy -- and one that has been successful for nominees of both parties in the past -- is to broaden your appeal to reach across the center of the spectrum.
In the Republican Party today, that means reaching out to moderates within the party and to independents -- particularly to women voters in both groups who are registering as strongly pro-Clinton in opinion polls. There's no longer any reason, if there ever was, to worry about Phil Gramm or Pat Buchanan.
The most telling flaw in the Dole approach right now is that it doesn't deal with what voters are concerned about these days. A mountain of evidence indicated that Americans are uneasy about the state of the economy and wondering about how they will fit into the new age of international economics and instant access to vast stores of information.
About 60 percent of Americans believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction" -- an invitation to any nominee to offer comfort and reassurance about the future rather than ideological quibbling.
Many Republican strategists believe that their best chance of recapturing the White House lies in denouncing President Clinton's personal qualities and political beliefs as well as his four-year performance. Every presidential election involving an incumbent is at least partially a referendum on that incumbent -- but it is equally true that every presidential election is about the future.
Beating up on federal judges and the American Bar Association may give Senator Dole and some of his conservative allies a nice warm feeling. But there's no reason to think it is important to most Americans.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 4/24/96