WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Recollecting in tranquility the delights of politics in 1800, a retired congressman said, "It was a pleasure to live in those good old days, when a Federalist could knock a Republican down in the streets and not be questioned about it."
In 1996, Republicans knock Republicans down. Bob Dole, who talks about leadership, should show some by knocking enough heads together to restore order in his party's ranks.
Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan have been called liabilities by Al D'Amato -- talk about being called ugly by a frog -- and some conservatives suspect that Govs. Pete Wilson, Christine Todd Whitman, George Pataki and Bill Weld have begun their campaigns for the next Republican nomination by planning to convulse this year's convention with a fight over the platform's pro-life abortion stance. (A stance which did not prevent Messrs. Reagan and Bush from carrying 133 states in three elections.)
Taken back from whom?
The suspicion is that the four would be dry-eyed if a debacle in San Diego -- "another Houston" -- were followed by defeat in November, allowing them to argue that the party must be "taken back" from . . . ? From some of its most intense and reliable components -- religious and pro-life conservatives.
After Senator Dole tells the frog and the governors to subside or they will suffer, he should try to stop Republican whining about his awkwardness and Bill Clinton's nimbleness.
It is not news that President Clinton is our Henry of Navarre, the French king who was raised a Protestant but twice converted to Roman Catholicism for political convenience, saying, "Paris is well worth a Mass." Mr. Clinton thinks the presidency is worth some disparagements of big government, waivers for state welfare experiments, embrace of the adoption provision from the Republican Contract, denial of welfare benefits to unwed teen-age mothers who quit school or do not live with responsible adults, and all his other recent political plagiarisms.
They are genuflections to the country's conservatism. So the conservative party should stop complaining and start presenting a coherent conservative rhetoric distinguished from Mr. Clinton's by its sincerity.
Senator Dole says he is a doer, not a talker, but it is time for him to be more of a talker and less of a doer. He can remain majority leader but must get off the Senate floor and into serious discipline as a talker to the nation, not the other legislators.
By hanging around the Senate he risks convincing the country he should stay there because he thinks the presidency is not important enough to pursue single-mindedly. And when he tells an audience, "Like everyone else in this room, I was born," he calls to mind another Kansan who was a Republican presidential nominee -- Alf Landon, who said, "Wherever I have gone in this country I have found Americans."
That was 60 years ago, the last time a Democratic president won a second term. Mr. Clinton will win one unless Senator Dole can say, reading carefully crafted speeches, why it is important, even with the world relatively calm and the economy tolerably strong, to change presidents.
Regarding foreign policy, the country is safer than at any time since the 1920s. The stakes of politics were lowered by the end of the Cold War. The electorate's standards have been lowered, too. That is one reason why Mr. Clinton is president, and why Senator Dole's strengths of experience, integrity and character may have less salience than he hopes they will in the contrast with Mr. Clinton.
The country also is more conservative than at any time since the 1920s, so the conservative party's candidate has an advantage Mr. Dole has barely begun to exploit. To do so he must do what he is often uncomfortable doing -- voice Americans' anxieties about the coarsening of the culture and the Balkanizing of the citizenry.
He will get help from Hawaii's supreme court if it angers an overwhelming majority of Americans by discovering a right to contract same-sex marriages. He is being helped by the presence on California's ballots this November of the initiative to ban the state government from administering racial preferences.
He must force Mr. Clinton to fight for California, lest the president linger all autumn where the election will be settled, in the crescent between New Jersey and Wisconsin, where Roman Catholic voters -- one-fourth of the population and a bit more of those who vote -- will be crucial.
Which is why some conservatives, looking for reasons for enthusiasm about Mr. Dole, and for a way to stay busy, other than by complaining about him, may unite in advocating as his running mate Rep. Chris Cox, an ideologically conservative California Catholic.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 5/13/96