Past Master

Bob Dole's campaign has no future.


Bob Dole believes values are a thing of the past, qualities rooted in time and place. At least that was what he was saying last August, on a campaign swing through Iowa.

"Those of us who were raised in rural America grew up with a common set of values, a code of living that stays with us all our lives," he said. "Love of God and country and family. Commitment to honesty, decency, and personal responsibility. Self-reliance tempered by a sense of community. Our great cities can be exciting and magnificent places, but the values nurtured here in the heart of America are the ones that have guided us throughout our history. Those values made us the greatest country on earth. And there is no doubt in my mind that the secret to getting our country back on track is simply to return to them as a matter of national policy."

At one level, this is just blatant pandering–a man who lives in the Watergate telling rural Americans that they're the salt of the earth. On another, it is quite serious, a reflection of the would-be president's habits of mind. It captures what's wrong with Dole's campaign, both tactically and philosophically.

Bob Dole does not believe in the future. It is not even clear that he believes in the present. His imagination knows no suburbs–the home of most Americans–and no sources of decency beyond those of his childhood. Everyone born since maybe 1930, certainly everyone born since World War II, has grown up in a hopelessly amoral America (unless, of course, they're from the rural Midwest).

If the future is nonexistent and the present terrible, the past holds nothing but pain: "How many pioneers faced a hostile and threatening frontier?" Dole said in his response to the State of the Union address. "How many immigrants gave their bodies to the mines? And how many soldiers lost their lives on the distant battlefields to secure a better future for their children and their children's children?" All those sacrifices seem to have been in vain, for the future is today and today is lousy: "It is as if we went to sleep in one America and woke up in another." It's morning in America, and Bob Dole has a hangover.

Now, I understand that a candidate running against an incumbent president has to paint a gloomy picture of the present–anything else implies either that the incumbent is doing a decent job or, even more subversive, that the president does not determine every little aspect of American life. But the time scale of Dole's depression is much longer than the Clinton administration. We have been going downhill, morally and in just about every other way, since we left the farm, which means the country has been in decline for 50, maybe even 100, years. In Dole's assessment, "the greatest country on earth" is not so great. And its problems lie not in its government but in its people, who need to be reshaped "as a matter of national policy."

This gloom is not believable, and it is certainly not appealing. Dole is running for moralist-in-chief–"Americans look to the White House for moral leadership," he told the Catholic Press Association in May–yet he seems to view morality as incompatible with modernity, achievement, and prosperity, with all that the movement from farm to city (or, for that matter, the suburbs) represents.

The base of the Republican Party is the Sunbelt–the New South and the Southwest–a region a generation or two away from rural life, and rural poverty. Sunbelt residents do not believe they left their values back on the farm. The people of Charlotte and Tampa, Memphis and Phoenix do not think of their cities as "exciting and magnificent" but basically amoral places. The suburbs of New Jersey and Florida–states that a Republican presidential candidate must win but that Dole is losing–are filled with people whose families have lived in cities for generations.

They, and most Americans, face a challenge Bob Dole has rarely known: the challenge of building a harmonious community, and of making one's own way, in a place where most of the people you meet do not know who you are. This is the challenge of modernity, and of civilization itself. It is at the heart of commerce and law. The American experiment in creating a geographically expansive republic, a nation of strangers, depends upon meeting that challenge.

In The Fatal Conceit, F.A. Hayek called this aspect of civilization "the extended order"–the ever more complex web of transactions and relationships among strangers that allows specialization, population growth, and rising living standards. The extended order requires an abstract morality and a rule of law beyond the instincts of tribe and family, a morality that will work in Los Angeles as well as it does Russell, Kansas.

Voters do not, obviously, want to hear lectures on Hayek from presidential candidates. But the people who chose Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton over George Bush are clearly looking for something in a president other than simple personal morality.

That "vision thing" includes a sense of shared values, values on which no place, no time, no generation has a monopoly, values that can shape our future as they have shaped our past. And that vision includes hope for a better future–hope grounded not in the dictates of government but in the creativity, resourcefulness, imagination, and virtue of private Americans.

The alternative to vision is cheap symbolism and a litany of programmatic gimmicks. That is the alternative Dole offers. Aside from his obvious contempt for Clinton's character, it's not at all clear they disagree that much. Both believe in activist government. Both like to strike self-righteous poses. Both are, therefore, drawn to what I've termed "Lethal Center" issues: popular, meddlesome measures like the V-chip, curfews, Internet censorship, cigarette regulation (for Clinton), public school prayer (for Dole). (See "The Lethal Center," August/September 1995.) Both the allegedly gay-friendly president and the allegedly decentralist Kansan support making marriage a matter of federal, rather than state, definition. Both talk up tax cuts designed to manipulate behavior in Washington-approved directions: toward college tuitions or more children, home buying or charitable giving. Both say they support a balanced budget, but without "extreme" spending cuts.

But Clinton says all this better, in more inspiring ways, with more convincing invocations of a better future. That he's often dissembling makes little difference, since explaining how his vision would in fact sacrifice the future to the demands of bureaucracy and central control requires an understanding of the world that Dole–like Clinton, a lifelong technocrat–does not possess. A man who sees creativity as opposed to morality, and who imagines that progress streams from government programs, is not up to the challenge of protecting the future from the machinations of the power hungry.