A convention of problems, opportunities and choreography

August 19, 1996|By George F. Will

SAN DIEGO -- After his third unsuccessful presidential campaign, William Jennings Bryan, a teetotaler not famous for his sense of humor, took to telling a joke about a drunk. Three times the drunk tried to gain entrance at a private club and three times he was tossed down the stairs. After his third tumble the drunk pensively said, "They can't fool me. Those fellows don't want me in there."

Twenty-year race

Bob Dole, who first ran for national office 20 years ago and is now entering the final lap of his fourth run, will break camp here with 81 days to convince the country that it really does want him in the executive branch.

In 1976 he almost won the vice presidency. (Just 12,791 more Republican votes in Ohio and Mississippi would have elected the Ford-Dole ticket.) In 1980 his campaign for the presidential nomination crashed in New Hampshire, where he received fewer votes than he had volunteers.

Technical faults

In 1988, having trounced Vice President George Bush in Iowa's caucuses, he sailed into New Hampshire with a large lead but lost because of technical mistakes. This year he won 39 primaries and a percentage of the total primary vote about equal to what Ronald Reagan won in 1980.

So Mr. Dole is no stranger to political adversity; neither is he the flimsy candidate of his first weeks of wandering after leaving the Senate. His convention has demonstrated how formidable he can be when he allows himself to draw strength from his party's ideas and star power.

Some biological urge or spiritual need or both impels journalists attending conventions to search for doubt, schism and chaos.

Finding little here, they have dismissed this convention as an exercise in anesthetizing boredom. In fact, now that conventions are no longer deliberative bodies but ratifying bodies, conventions aspire to be exercises in closely choreographed communication. Hence they reveal the parties' estimates of their problems and opportunities.

The coming campaign will indicate whether the Democratic Party can still take for granted 90 percent of the African-American vote in presidential elections.

African-Americans

The highest ranking African-American in government is a conservative, Clarence Thomas. The most admired American, Colin Powell, is an African-American who did his duty here, although at times he seemed to want it known that he thought he was dignifying an event at some cost to his fastidiousness.

Mr. Powell, who might have confined his speech to autobiography, instead generated some of the film footage needed for campaign commercials: He reaffirmed his Republicanism, and said it is important to elect Mr. Dole.

True, the next day his studied diffidence was on display as he went out of his way to indicate that electing Dole is not so important that he will do very much more to achieve it. But surely he will campaign if, as seems possible, Mr. Dole concludes he has a chance to carry Mr. Powell's home state, New York.

Italian-Americans

Susan Molinari is a New Yorker from a potent portion of that state's electorate, Italian-Americans. (They produced a three-term Democratic governor, Mario Cuomo, and New York City's current Republican mayor, Rudolph Giuliani.) She deftly braided the themes of two sometimes antagonistic Republican factions -- call them the economists and the preachers.

The economists want to stress Mr. Dole's economic program. The preachers want to stress the family and cultural values under siege. Ms. Molinari stressed stress, saying the economic and values themes are actually one:

Stretched moms

"I don't know a mom today who isn't being stretched to her limit trying to hold down a job while trying to hold down the fort, too. And how many times have we said to ourselves 'There just aren't enough hours in the day'. ... Republicans can't promise you any more hours in a day, but we can help you spend more hours at home with your family."

Time is money, and money is congealed time -- the time it takes to earn it. Government at all levels takes almost 40 cents of every dollar Americans earn, a conscription of time without precedent in America, even in wartime.

However, recently in California Bill Clinton criticized Dole's proposed 15 percent across-the-board tax cut, and compared talk of tax cuts to the temptations of childish gluttony in a candy store. He recommends only a few small "targeted" tax breaks that subsidize behavior (for example, adoption or attending college) that the government favors.

Debate joined

So the Republican favors a broad expansion of individuals' discretion over their income, and hence over their time. The Democrat favors increased use of the tax code to enlarge government's manipulation of individuals' behavior. The debate has been joined.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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