SAN DIEGO -- If you want to understand why Republican politicians are so discouraged about their presidential prospects this year, you have only to study Bob Dole's handling -- or mishandling -- of the abortion rights issue and the party platform.
Mr. Dole seemed to be taking charge several weeks ago when he said he would insist that the platform include what became known as "tolerance language" -- meaning a recognition that Republicans could disagree on abortion with civility.
When the question arose whether that language would be applied somewhat ambiguously to the entire platform or specifically to the abortion rights question, Mr. Dole said it would be the latter. In other words, there would be no ducking the issue. A month ago Mr. Dole and Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the platform committee, worked out some tentative language.
The message the candidate was sending was that he would not allow a repetition of the Houston convention in 1992, which was perceived as totally controlled by the religious right, most
notably the Christian Coalition. That perception, political analysts agreed, cost George Bush heavily among suburban Republicans and independent voters in his loss to Bill Clinton.
Senator Dole, in short, was behaving like the leader of his party and taking charge.
But when the time came here last week, he simply caved in. The platform would repeat the party's demand for a constitutional amendment forbidding abortions and would include only a vague statement about how diversity is a source of strength rather than weakness within the party. The statement was vague enough that the abortion rights opponents went along quietly; they understood it was meaningless.
The rationale from the Dole campaign was that the most important thing was to put the abortion rights issue behind them so that he could turn the voters' attention on the more significant question of his proposal for an across-the-board tax cut and a stronger economy.
Mr. Dole's bumbling was not finished, however. The last straw came when, after the platform committee had finished work on the plank, he telephoned Mr. Hyde to see if something couldn't be done to soften the document and give more recognition to the views of those who support abortion rights. He was acting, he said, at the urging of California Gov. Pete Wilson, who feared a tough platform would turn off some moderate voters.
The result was a fiasco, a bone thrown to the party moderates in the form of a promise to print the language of defeated tolerance proposals in an appendix to the platform. The gesture was so perfunctory that the abortion rights opponents were willing to swallow it without protest.
Publicly some of the pro-choice Republicans tried to put a positive face on it. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, for example, called it a "historic moment" in the annals of the party because it gave the first recognition to their view. But that was a joke, and the pro-choice Republicans know it.
More to the point, the whole episode has raised fresh questions about Bob Dole as the candidate and as a national leader. It is clear, for one thing, that a nominee who cannot win the respect of his own convention will be at a significant disadvantage winning respect from the electorate.
The core of Mr. Dole's problem, in the eyes of those who know him best, is that he has never been in a situation that calls for the kind of leadership required of a presidential candidate. Instead, he has spent his years as the Republican leader in the Senate dealing with a constituency of 50 or so other senators, not millions of the great unwashed. And this kind of leadership is exercised out of the camera's eye in small meetings seeking compromises.
Now he will be required to lead his party under the full-time scrutiny of the television networks and the press. The most essential asset is the ability to articulate his goals and make a convincing public case for them. And that is precisely where he falters.
In the long run, the clumsy handling of the abortion issue is not likely to be decisive in this election. Instead, it will turn on how voters see their own lives under a Dole or Clinton presidency in the next four years, and many of them have serious reservations about the president.
But so far Bob Dole has not demonstrated the capacity to be a convincing alternative. The Republicans have a platform but not yet a strong candidate to run on it.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 8/12/96