WASHINGTON -- Last summer, when Bob Dole was still hearing the heavy footsteps of conservative Sen. Phil Gramm behind him, he told a meeting of the Republican National Committee that "if that's what you want, I'll be another Ronald Reagan."
Apparently many fellow Republicans do want their presumptive 1996 presidential nominee to be just that, urging him to propose a juicy tax cut in the fashion of the Great Communicator. Like Mr. Reagan in 1980, Mr. Dole is saying now that he can cut the deficit while cutting taxes, which Mr. Reagan failed spectacularly to do in his eight years as president.
Indeed, Mr. Reagan, after pushing through his whopping 25 percent tax cut in 1981, was forced by reality -- and the persuasion of then-White House Chief of Staff Jim Baker, in cahoots with Bob Dole -- to raise taxes again in 1983 while continuing to define himself as Mr. Tax-cutter.
That collusion between Messrs. Dole and Baker underscored Mr. Dole's reputation as a man who put deficit reduction ahead of tax cuts, a reputation sustained by his actions ever since. So his talk of tax cuts now seems easy prey for charges of flip-flop.
The Democrats hammered Mr. Reagan in 1980 for his promise to cut taxes, raise military spending and still balance the budget. But even with help from George Bush, who called Reagan's pledge "voodoo economics," Mr. Reagan won easily. And even as the federal deficit mushroomed under Mr. Reagan's fiscal
pipe dream, he won re-election in a landslide.
Not made of Teflon
But it should be remembered that no matter how willing Mr. Dole says he is to be Ronald Reagan, he isn't. Mr. Reagan's immense personal appeal, which led to his being called the Teflon president, transcended public concern over his failed fiscal promises. A clear majority of voters believed, as his 1984 re-election campaign slogan proclaimed, that it was "Morning in America."
Mr. Dole is a long way from conveying any similar rosy, optimistic promise and aura of good will and well-being. Whereas Mr. Reagan's don't-worry-be-happy demeanor was able to deflect Democratic charges of economic irresponsibility, Mr. Dole continues to labor under his image as a harsh naysayer after many years as opposition party leader.
His basic strategy to date has been to demonize President Clinton as an unreconstructed liberal who continues to poison the federal judiciary with liberal appointments. While that strategy may earn points with the conservative mainstream of his own party, it casts Mr. Dole as an aging grouch in other eyes, an image that Mr. Reagan for all his advancing years never had.
Mr. Dole, though clearly frustrated by President Clinton's co-opting of conservative positions and themes from welfare reform to opposition to same-sex marriages, so far has largely kept his famous temper and acid tongue in control. But as this unprecedentedly long general-election campaign drags on, Mr. Dole's frustration could produce an eruption of the sort that has plagued him in the past.
In 1976, as the Republican vice presidential nominee, he lost his cool in referring to World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam conflicts as "Democrat wars," and in 1988, as a presidential candidate, he did likewise in demanding on network television that opponent Bush "stop lying about my record."
Mr. Reagan by contrast often turned away opponents benignly or with soft humor, as in his memorable dismissal of a Jimmy Carter allegation in debate in 1980 with "there you go again," and his deft demolition of suspicions of senility in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, when he dead-panned that "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Mr. Dole in fact used the "there you go again" line against President Clinton Tuesday. If he can be Ronald Reagan that way, he might be better off than in proposing another dose of "voodoo economics."
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 6/05/96