THE REPUBLICAN PARTY assembles in San Diego tomorrow with its presidential candidate 20 points behind in the polls, its platform far more conservative than the electorate as a whole, its opponent adroitly punching the right political buttons, its control of the Congress in jeopardy, its loyalists deeply divided over abortion and economic policy and -- surprisingly -- its dominance in the nation's on-going ideological debate acknowledged even by Democrats.
For presidential candidate Robert J. Dole, the GOP national convention ending Thursday night with his acceptance speech is the triumph of a long and courageous career. It is also a desperately needed opportunity to revive a campaign that in test after test has failed to shake President Clinton's appeal to the voters.
Mr. Dole's reply to the State of the Union speech, his decision to give up his post as Senate majority leader, even his embrace of a supply-sider 15 percent tax-cut proposal -- all have landed with a dud in voter samplings.
What Mr. Dole needs out of San Diego is a "convention bounce" of trampoline proportions. A look back in history of only eight years shows that this is possible. With one speech, his famous "kinder, gentler America" speech, George Bush jumped from 10 points down in the polls to seven above and went on to win an election Democrats thought they had in the bag. (Four years later, he went from early-line sure winner to election-night loser.)
One of the delights of American politics is that history never repeats itself. The quadrennial judgment rendered by voters is a mystical composite of the vast changes constantly roiling a turbulent country, the chance interplay of political personalities who rise to the top and -- always -- the state of the economy as election day approaches.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle facing Mr. Dole and his party is the longest period of prosperity of the century. The recovery started under President Bush, though he never got credit for it, and has continued at a modest, steady pace as a result of the orthodox monetary policies of Mr. Clinton's Republican chairman the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan.
Mr. Dole's response has been to adopt the fast-growth rhetoric of the supply siders and the populist appeals to the discontented that are Patrick Buchanan's stock in trade.
It is an awkward posture for the former Kansas senator, who bravely opposed the economic excesses of the Reagan administration and the demagogy of the "Buchanan brigades." But there is ample evidence that millions of working Americans feel stuck with stagnant wages and bleak about their chances of insuring their children a better life. These are the voters who will -- decide the November election. And in politics, as Mr. Dole knows, you do what you have to do.
In the matter of political personalities, there is little doubt that he holds an edge over Mr. Clinton in public estimation of character and values. Whitewater, womanizing and willingness to sway with the wind for political purposes all could become liabilities for Mr. Clinton. But so far, a perception that he is getting a firmer grip on the presidency has pushed the Democratic incumbent's approval ratings higher. Thus, Senator Dole is faced with the need to maintain his reputation for steadiness of purpose at the same time his political handlers are urging him to take new positions on the hustings.
In the end, Mr. Dole has to listen to his own instincts about what is happening in this country -- and respond with a winning message.
Just in the last two years, he has seen the Gingrich wing of his party take over the Congress from a foundering Clinton administration only to fritter away this advantage through ideological overreach and arrogance. He has seen the financial markets soar as the gap between rich and poor grew alarmingly wider. He has watched his nation warily involve itself in the
Balkans even as isolationist sentiment flared. He has witnessed bursts of terrorism, both home-grown and foreign, and crime patterns that undermine the ordinary citizen's sense of security.
Clearly there has to be a compelling vision of where he wants to take America and of the role government should play in this process if Mr. Dole is to win the presidency against present odds. To this end, he needs to demonstrate clearly that he is more magnanimous, more broad-minded, more generous in his thinking than the zealots who wrote his party's platform.
In the end, Americans don't choose presidents on the basis of policy agendas or even campaign rhetoric, which they know should not be taken literally. They make their choice on the basis of gut instincts about intelligence, strength and humanity -- and on all these Bob Dole stands forth as an estimable candidate.
Pub Date: 8/11/96