WASHINGTON -- One of the burdens Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole carries into his third bid for the Republican presidential nomination, at least among political insiders, is a reputation for poor political decisions. But an early indication that he is learning from past mistakes is his signing of a pledge not to raise income taxes if he is elected president.
Without the slightest fanfare, Dole signed the document, distributed to all candidates by an anti-tax group called Americans for Tax Reform, in his Senate office last week. Curiously, he made no mention of it in speeches in Kansas and New Hampshire. But the action could be critical in avoiding the kind of ambush in the New Hampshire that undid his presidential bid in 1988.
Seven years ago, Dole's presidential ambitions, buoyed by victory over George Bush in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, came crashing down in New Hampshire, in large part -- he later said -- because he refused to sign what is known in the state as "The Pledge" during a television debate.
"The Pledge" -- a promise not to raise taxes -- is a staple of politics in New Hampshire, which has no state income or sales tax and has become the political graveyard of anyone who even hints at advocating any kind of new levy. A tax pledge similar to the one Dole just signed was sprung on him in the 1988 debate by former Gov. Pete duPont of Delaware, another candidate, with the admonition: "Sign it." Dole looked at the paper, then cracked: "Give it to George (Bush). I have to read it first."
It so happened that the Bush campaign had just launched a television attack on Dole on the tax issue in what came to be known as "the straddle ad." The ad charged that "Bob Dole straddles, and he just won't promise not to raise taxes. And you know what that means."
In a close primary, Bush overcame Dole's lead and won. Dole never recovered. He told us later he had thought about signing the pledge "but then you're in the same class as everybody else. Do anything to get elected."
On election night, in apparent reference to "the straddle ad," Dole snapped to NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw: "Tell [Bush] to stop lying about my record." The remark resurrected another Dole vulnerability: his reputation for meanness.
In later conversations, Dole would come back to "the straddle ad" and how it had brought down his 1988 presidential campaign. "I wondered about whether I should have signed that thing," he would say. Apparently that soul-searching bore fruit last week in his decision to get on the "right" side of the tax issue in New Hampshire before even setting foot in the state again as a declared candidate.
The move was the latest by Dole to polish his conservative credentials in a party that has moved so conspicuously to the right. Indeed, by coming out for a tax cut, repeal of the assault weapons ban and reaffirming his anti-abortion views, Dole has been accused lately of being willing to "do anything to get elected.".
Signing "The Pledge," however, may be the most important of these actions because his record continues to make him vulnerable on the tax issue. Sen. Phil Gramm, who has also signed the same pledge, can be expected to charge that Dole as Senate Finance Committee chairman was an architect of a whopping $99 billion tax increase in 1982.
In that year, Dole along with then Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and then White House chief of staff James Baker, persuaded President Ronald Reagan to swallow the tax increase as a deficit reduction measure and as the price of support from congressional Democrats for other items on the Reagan legislative agenda.
As important as assuaging anti-tax voters in New Hampshire, however, is Dole's recognition that he has to address swiftly and decisively potential hazards on his latest presidential trail.
He can do nothing about his age -- 71 -- except look and act vigorous, which he does, and he must avoid the occasional meanness that hurt him in the past. His best ally for that is his sharp sense of humor, which can be a great asset as long as he learns not to employ it to lash out at his Republican opponents.