WASHINGTON -- For the Republican Party, this is the time for agonizing contemplation of what might have been. It is apparent -- with 20-20 hindsight, of course -- that almost any Republican candidate other than Bob Dole could have defeated President Clinton in the 1996 election.
The circumstances for the president were clearly auspicious. No crisis anywhere in the world is endangering the lives of American boys. The economy is thriving, and Americans are more optimistic than they have been at any time in the last four years.
Nonetheless, Mr. Clinton won what can only be called a perfunctory victory, less than an 8 percent margin over an opponent whose ineptitude as a campaigner should have been worth 10 or 15 points. Indeed, if there is a consensus among
Republican professionals today, it is that Bob Dole was a weaker candidate even than the George Bush of 1992, which is saying a ton.
You have to wonder if Mr. Clinton could have survived against, for example, another Southern country slicker such as Lamar zTC Alexander or a candidate as focused and intense as Pete Wilson, as positive and energetic as Jack Kemp or as solid and articulate as Dick Cheney. In the aftermath of this election, there are many Republicans willing to believe any of them might have beaten him.
There are, of course, some risky assumptions in such speculation. No one knows how any of these alternative candidates would have performed on the stump. And no one knows how the campaign would have played out if the president had faced a more imposing opponent. The one thing he has demonstrated repeatedly is that he is a tenacious and resourceful politician. So the dynamics might have been quite different.
But the judgment on Senator Dole is essentially universal in the political community. He was by almost every measure the wrong candidate to challenge Mr. Clinton -- too old, too sour, too much of an inside-the-Beltway player, too inarticulate to present a vision.
Mr. Dole is getting credit for the way he played the end game. Although it may have seemed a fool's errand at the outset, the 96-hour "marathon man" exercise showed him essentially for the first time as a positive and vigorous political leader who wanted very badly to win. And that, some Republican strategists are arguing, may have helped minimize his party's losses in close House races by energizing Republicans and maintaining turnout.
The notion that some other candidate would have been stronger against President Clinton is tempered significantly, however, by the realities of the nominating process. The question is whether it is possible for the party to find a candidate who can bridge the huge gulf between the religious right on the one hand and the socially moderate suburban Republicans on the other.
Thus, for example, those playing the might-have-been game are obviously intrigued by what would have developed if Colin Powell had been the Republican candidate. But could Mr. Powell, a supporter of abortion rights, be nominated by a party that gives the Christian Coalition what is essentially veto power over the ticket?
More to the point, is there any assurance that this veto power is going to be lessened in the next four years? The Christian Coalition's analysis of Senator Dole's defeat suggests that his problem was not that he alienated suburban moderates by buttering up Pat Robertson but, on the contrary, that he relied too little on the so-called "family values" issues.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, however, those vexing questions are put aside and the focus is on the hollow victory President Clinton achieved despite favorable circumstances and a weak challenger. Despite his success in the electoral college, his party lost two seats in the Senate and apparently gained fewer than a dozen in the House.
If Bob Dole could do that well, what would have happened if there had been a real candidate in his place?
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 11/08/96