Dole's Senate leadership won't mean much at polls

ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

March 25, 1995|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The Senate's approval of the line-item veto bill is being viewed widely here as an important triumph for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. As a candidate for president, the conventional wisdom holds, he could not afford another defeat in the Senate.

In fact, however, political history suggests that this kind of inside baseball on Capitol Hill has little or nothing to do with presidential politics. The voters simply don't pay that much attention to every turn of the road here.

This fact of political life was demonstrated most starkly 15 years ago in the case of another Republican leader of the Senate, Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee. He delayed a full-scale campaign for the 1980 Republican nomination on the theory that the attention he received on the television network news programs as a Senate heavyweight would sustain him as a candidate.

As it turned out, that was a classic mistake. As the contest evolved, it became apparent to Baker and his managers that his prominence here was irrelevant in competing with Ronald Reagan and George Bush for that nomination.

A generation earlier, in 1960, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson refused to campaign extensively to introduce himself to the electorate because he also believed his position as the dominant Democrat in Washington would be enough of a credential. John F. Kennedy proved that wasn't the case.

The broader lesson from this history is this one: When primary voters focus on their preference for president, they are far less interested in their paper credentials than they are in what the candidates seem to offer for the future.

And what this suggests, in turn, is that it would be a mistake to read too much into the early twists and turns of candidate maneuvering almost a year before the process begins in earnest. Most voters simply aren't paying attention.

Moreover, when they do start watching closely, they are likely to be less interested in the resumes of candidates than in the messages they broadcast about the priorities that would guide their conduct both as candidates in the general election and as president.

In that contest 15 years ago, the difference among the Republicans proved to be the image Ronald Reagan projected as a strong leader who would shore up the nation's defenses while cutting down the role of the federal government. Similarly, in the 1992 campaign, the winning element of Bill Clinton's candidacy was his presentation of himself as a different kind of Democrat who would deal effectively with the prime issue of the moment, the condition of the economy, without being a tool of the liberal constituencies.

None of this means that there is no meaning in what the candidates do to position themselves early in the campaign. Although most voters aren't yet ready to devote any serious attention to the 1996 campaign, there are a few activists in Iowa and New Hampshire -- perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 in each state -- already both interested and involved.

Thus, the steps being taken by Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Lamar Alexander and Pete Wilson have some political meaning in identifying them to these activists who may make up the core of their organizations in the early contests. And they have some meaning, as well, in the way the news media define the candidates to the broader electorate.

That is why Gramm and, to a slightly lesser extent perhaps, Dole are projecting images as strongly conservative. It is also obviously the reason Wilson emphasized his conservative positions on such issues as immigration and affirmative action -- when he made his de facto declaration of candidacy in California. But, again, the notion that most voters are paying close attention is fanciful.

The result is that the opinion polls matching the candidates against one another at this point are largely meaningless. They show which candidates are most familiar to the voters -- Dole most obviously -- but they also oblige respondents to make choices they are by no means prepared to make at this stage.

In fact, the performance of the candidates in their present jobs probably should be an important factor in the choice of a presidential nominee. Dole's success in the Senate does say something about his leadership abilities.

But by the time the campaign becomes serious, nobody is going to remember how Bob Dole succeeded in passing the line-item veto bill.

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