What Bob Dole should have said

November 02, 1996|By Andrew Ratner

BOB DOLE blew it.

Not his apparently sinking bid for the presidency, since he hardly ever seemed in the hunt save for the fleeting ''bounce'' during his party's convention (and his wife and her roving microphone probably earned most of that.)

What Bob Dole really flubbed was the quadrennial opportunity presidential elections offer as a means to take stock of the nation and where it is heading. He tried a few times to address broad themes, but kept retreating to the ''safer'' ground of attacking President Clinton's character.

Mr. Dole missed an opportunity for his candidacy as well as the nation. There are myriad things troubling Americans: We're disturbed that children seem ruder and more violent. We fear the Internet and managed health care, even as we recognize the good in those advances. We're not as confident as the economists believe: Blue-collar families have great trouble making ends meet and white-collar workers fret about their standing in a downsized corporate world. Folks don't simply measure how they're doing in terms of inflation or interest rates: They're uneasy that life has them eating too many microwaved )) dinners on the fly, or that Madison Avenue has persuaded them that they must lease fancy cars beyond their means, a Wall Street Journal survey suggested.

Americans are not gloomy or angry. Anxious or skittish might better describe it. Stories about Roberto Alomar spitting or a fan interfering with a ballgame or a kissing schoolboy resonate so because people yearn for a dialogue on right and wrong that Washington is impotent to moderate.

Mr. Dole's few attempts to mine some of these areas blew up, so he resorted to patronizing excess, such as laying teen-age drug use at the president's feet. He had his moments, though.

As he accepted the GOP nomination, Mr. Dole said, ''I am here to tell you, it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family.'' The partisans' roar turned to criticism from pundits and Democrats, who thought he was bullying Hillary Clinton. Yet many agree with Mr. Dole that the first lady's message is misdirected or, at least, easily misunderstood.

George preceded Hillary

Her slogan, borrowed from closely knit tribal culture, does undervalue the onus on the individual. If parents took the job of raising children more seriously, teachers, police and others wouldn't be forced to play mom and dad so often. While Mrs. Clinton is right that a child is shaped by many non-related adults and volunteers, her point is no different in that regard than George Bush's more focused ''points of light.''

Another quote from Mr. Dole, widely publicized before it faded, was that ''within the Clinton administration [is] a corps of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered.'' His barb was interpreted as a condemnation of the president's entire generation.

Too bad it withered there, because we could use a good debate about the marijuana-tolerant, self-absorbed Baby Boomers, perhaps even a referendum. (Thumbs down, they go.) The nation's maturing demographic bulge needs to ask itself how a group that, on the whole, recalls its own childhood so warmly could make such a mess of marriage and parenthood. Understandably for Mr. Dole, beating up 76 million middle-aged people does not the best election strategy make.

It may seem unfair to lay on the challenger the duty to have spurred a discussion about America as it crosses the other fellow's bridge to the 21st century. But the front-running incumbent naturally wouldn't raise such concerns.

Had Mr. Dole pressed them, he might have distinguished himself as a leader who recognizes that something ails us, even if no one can put a finger on it.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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