Treat this candidacy with respect

August 17, 1996|By Daniel Berger

SEN. BOB DOLE's problem was to unify the right-wing party loyalists in the cause of attracting the centrist electorate. On the surface, this cannot be done. President George Bush blew it four years ago. What appeases the doctrinaire faithful alienates the uncommitted, and vice versa.

This convention will be judged on how well Mr. Dole brought off the impossible. Pretty darned well.

Within the broad Republican tent are several dichotomies: broad-minded vs. didactic, conservative budget-balancers vs. neo-Keynesian supply-siders, nasty antis vs. sunny uplifters.

Senator Dole is the institutional memory of the Republican Party. Compared to him, Ronald Reagan was an upstart. Mr. Dole is also an inept electoral personality with a self-aware, razor sharp, analytical, political mind.

So the Dole machine made a series of tactical judgments about the convention.

It gave the negative nasties the whole platform, forbade a debate and squelched centrists from defending themselves.

Having seemingly surrendered to Bay Buchanan, the Dole command maneuvered her brother Pat into premature abandonment of his own aspirations for candidacy in or out of the party.

The Clinton campaign will happily run against this platform, which the Dole campaign may never print. The Christian Coalition was had, is complicit, remains loyal and means to own the nominee in 2000. Meanwhile, it has a larger share of this one than was evident from the oratory.

The podium was given over, during prime time, to carefully selected moderates, women and blacks, who were not allowed to argue internecine disputes. They brought to the screen a visual diversity in the party not evident to the minglers in the hall.

This creates a humane, caring and inclusive image for the campaign, the mirror image of that created by the 1992 convention and by Newt Gingrich's leadership in the House of Representatives.

Supply side gambit

But the crucial decision of the Dole machine was to co-opt the supply side theories, which Mr. Dole despises, from candidate Steve Forbes, whom he demolished. Candidate Dole's 15 percent tax cut, even his rhetoric about it, which Senator Dole would ridicule, comes from there.

What's more, Mr. Dole sought out Mr. Forbes' mentor, Jack Kemp, to be his running mate. The Dole camp is more willing to face a Perot third-party challenge on the deficit than a Buchananite third-party crusade on anti-ism.

Mr. Dole, the gloomy sourpuss of Republicanism, needs sunshine around him. Mr. Kemp is ebullient, optimistic and outreaching.

A local note: Mr. Kemp is the intellectual author of the Moving To Opportunity program, which would relocate a few Baltimore City slum dwellers to suburban county rental developments. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County is grandstanding for re-election against it. Oops.

Oh well, Mr. Kemp recanted much to get on this ticket and Mr. Ehrlich may assume he is recanting on MTO as well, lest Mr. Ehrlich be obliged to recant his condemnation of it.

The Dole strategy is clear. Only Ronald Reagan has unified this party in modern times. The dour, pre-Reaganite Dole needs the Reaganesque buoyancy and optimism of Mr. Kemp to run on Reagan nostalgia.

The tax-cut promise is a political philosophy that can be spelled out on a bumper sticker. It may cause deficits, debt-service spikes and capital famines, but not until after it has won the election.

Mr. Dole's own long and forceful acceptance speech needed to show his vigor to overcome the age issue, which he did magnificently.

Beyond that, he was challenged to bridge the gap between the caustic backroom dealer that people remember and the hero-saint presented to the convention by a loving wife in Oprah mode. This is to set up the character issue, which he did pretty well.

When the convention ceased being a convention in order to be television, it became lousy television, which the frustrated networks may never tolerate again.

But the Republican purpose was not to create art or news. It was to lay the basis for winning the election.

They did the best that could be done with the material, and the Dole campaign should be regarded with enlarged respect.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/17/96

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