A man who never led one is asked to find the front of the ideological parade

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- As Republican leaders read the polls and steadily grow more panicky about the November outlook for presumptive presidential nominee Bob Dole, more and more demands are being heard for him to specify just what he would do as president to improve the lot of average Americans.

Ordinarily, that isn't a problem for a nominee, because he usually marches in front of an ideological parade that either he has recruited or he has inherited. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 did the former; George Bush in 1988 and 1992 did the latter, and it produced victory three times out of four.

The one time it didn't, in Mr. Bush's loss to Bill Clinton, Mr. Bush conspicuously strayed from the Gospel according to St. Ronald, which preached no new taxes, by going back on his notorious "read my lips" pledge to the 1988 Republican convention. Reagan true believers never forgave him for it, and this apostasy contributed mightily to the challenge from Pat Buchanan that plagued Mr. Bush in 1992.

This time around, the pressure on Senator Dole to say where he's going is so strong because the ideological parade that led to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 was led by somebody else -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And in inheriting it, Mr. Dole obviously is having trouble staying in lockstep with it. As Senate leader, he declined to swallow whole the speaker's "Contract With America" that sailed through the House, choosing rather to play his standard legislative role as compromiser.

Republicans, most notably House freshmen in the Gingrich parade, are asking where Mr. Dole wants to take them, if he is not eager to lead them where they have been headed under Mr. Gingrich.

The senator's continuing courtship of his party's right, as evidenced most prominently in his attack on liberal judges, is an obvious effort to get in step, as best he can, at a time when a pragmatic Republican nominee would ordinarily be moving to the center.

So far, these gestures have not seemed to mollify the far right. Its most vocal voices continue to warn of a Dole defeat of Goldwaterian proportions unless he gets more conspicuously with the program as articulated relentlessly by Speaker Gingrich and his unbending sidekick, House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

The lesson of '94

That may help explain the recent criticism of Mr. Gingrich from one of Senator Dole's most prominent campaign backers, Sen. Al D'Amato. In interviews, he charged that the speaker had "misread the '94 election results" by pressing an agenda in the House "that sent the wrong message. . . . People did vote for change but not for this revolution. They want lower taxes and less spending, but not dirty drinking water."

The result is that Senator Dole, neither the architect of a political philosophy as Mr. Reagan was, nor a swallower of somebody else's as Mr. Bush was until his retreat on no new taxes, finds himself trapped -- between all those Republicans marching nervously in the Gingrich parade and those like Senator D'Amato equally nervous that the parade is taking them all over a cliff.

Senator Dole in some ways is like the guy in the old story who encounters two men arguing vehemently on whether the world is round or flat. He listens to both sides and then says: "Among men of good will, surely the truth must lie somewhere in between." That attitude is bound to dissatisfy both sides, and so Mr. Dole is being pulled on the one hand to go where the parade wants to go, and on the other to lead it somewhere else.

His whole history is not to lead the parade, but to keep it moving on a course set by somebody else -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Presidents Reagan or Bush. At a time he should be redirecting the GOP parade on a course that will bring Democrats and independents into the marching ranks, he continues to scramble to stay in front of the revolution declared by Messrs. , Gingrich and Armey, though he himself in the Senate has been a questioning straggler in the ranks.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/08/96

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