The Choice

Bob Dole has character issues of his own.


So many people have said so many bad things about Bob Dole's campaign for the presidency that it almost seems unfair to pile on. But it is necessary. There is more at stake than poor organization or an inept candidate.

Like the Democrats, the Republicans have chosen a nominee whose ambition surpasses his integrity, wisdom, or political principles. The former senator's campaign promises "a better man for a better America," carefully framing its slogan in relative terms. It desperately hopes that Bill Clinton's well-known character flaws will hide Bob Dole's.

Dole got the Republican nomination partly by virtue of his party's monarchical tendencies–it was "his turn"–and largely by playing dirty. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the Dole campaign used barrages of lies not only to stop Steve Forbes but to tear down the very idea of a flat tax. Iowans got bogus "polling" calls suggesting that the plan would hurt farmers. And Dole surrogate New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill made TV ads touting a pseudo-study declaring that the flat tax would destroy property values. All concerned knew those claims were bogus–a point made repeatedly in press coverage of the Merrill ads–but the lies continued.

The Republican Party is now reaping the consequences of rewarding those lies. Once Phil Gramm's candidacy collapsed, the destruction of the Forbes campaign ended any serious hope of slowing down Dole's march to the nomination. And by demagoguing the flat tax–a major Republican initiative hardly original to Forbes–Dole demonstrated that he valued his own political ambitions more highly than the ideas and principles associated with his party.

That is not, of course, very surprising. There is no reason to think Dole believes that the federal tax code should stop manipulating behavior or punishing success. To the contrary, Dole espouses the 1970s Republicanism of "got a problem, get a law–but talk fiscal responsibility." His long Senate career was marked by an agenda of regulation, transfers, and taxes. Dole's proudest legislative achievements were food stamps, an agriculture subsidy in the guise of an entitlement program; the Americans with Disabilities Act, a well-intentioned but utterly disastrous regulatory program whose intrusiveness is matched only by its vagueness; and "saving" Social Security through an enormous payroll tax increase in 1983.

This final accomplishment is particularly noteworthy, because of the way Dole brags about it–and because dealing with entitlements will be a major challenge over the next few years. Thanks to that whopping 1983 tax increase, he likes to note (without actually mentioning those taxes), Social Security is on solid ground until 2029. "Pretty good," he says. Yeah, assuming that you and all your friends will be dead by 2029. Those of us who have been paying those enormous taxes all our working lives will see the system run out of money years before we reach Dole's current age. It is, of course, extremely unlikely that Clinton will ever muster the political courage to tell the truth about Social Security. But it is inconceivable that Dole will. He cannot even see the problem.

Dole simply had no business running for president at age 73. He cannot imagine the future and is out of touch with the political currents of the present. The problem is not his body but his mind. Like Clinton, he patronizes and panders, trying to be all things to all people. Lacking the president's deft touch at dissembling, however, he has managed to offend both sides on gun control, on abortion, on racial quotas. His on-again-off-again-on-again relationship with a donation from the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group, demonstrated spinelessness surpassing even the president's. Oh yes, and now he says nice things about the flat (or flatter) tax. Why he's even made Jack Kemp his running mate–though the record suggests Dole loathes the man and his ideas. If you believe Dole's sincere about low taxes, perhaps you'll also believe the first lady got rich in cattle futures by reading The Wall Street Journal.

My seriously Republican friends are upset with me for pointing out these unpleasant truths in such bald terms–and for suggesting that Dole deserves to lose and lose badly. "Some of us think something is at stake in this election," said one.

And so, indeed, do I.

Assuming that Republicans hold on to Congress, thereby checking new schemes for national health insurance and the like, the country can endure a second Clinton term with minimal damage. And Dole represents a sort of unprincipled, technocratic Republicanism that must be destroyed before we have any chance of seriously rolling back government. How it is destroyed matters, as does how that destruction is understood.

The quixotic Forbes campaign was significant in this regard, as was Ron Unz's even more unlikely gubernatorial primary challenge to Pete Wilson in 1994. These insurgencies, self-financed by wealthy men with ideas, represented a rebellion by the party's dynamic wing–that portion of the Republican coalition that embraces an open-ended future and leave-us-alone politics. It is this wing of the party that statists-to-the-core like Dole take for granted 90 percent of the time, only to turn to it in desperation when they face the general-election consequences of having jettisoned the most vital parts of the Republican coalition. You don't wind up 20 points down just because suburban women think Republicans are mean.

Putting Kemp on the ticket was supposed to convince enterpriser Republicans that Dole is one of them. This tactic treats the voters as complete saps, willing to believe simultaneously that Dole is in charge and that a vote for Dole is really a vote for Kemp. And Kemp himself is far from ideal. He appreciates entrepreneurship and incentives, the all-important feedback and experimentation that drive progress. But he still wants government to express good impulses, regardless of results, not enforce neutral rules. He won't let go. Republicans will have to wait at least another election cycle for a true dynamist champion.

In the meantime, there is the little matter of 1996. That the Republican nominee can take his libertarian-leaning constituents for more-or-less granted says much about the substantive and political failures of the Libertarian Party. But it is for just such elections as this one that alternative parties exist.

Every four years, REASON runs an article about the L.P.'s presidential campaign and every such article contains a statement that isn't exactly right: It says that an ideological third party has two choices–running educational campaigns or running candidates to win. In fact, an alternative party is suited for neither task. As a political party, it tends to turn complex ideas into simplistic slogans, failing in its educational mission. And the mathematics of the American system create a two-party equilibrium, making it almost impossible for alternative parties to win partisan elections. (Nonpartisan local races are another matter.)

What a third party can do is, in George Wallace's old slogan, Send them a message. Sending a message means giving up fantasies of revolution. It means accepting politics as it is, not as you wish it were. It means recognizing that politicians, like rats in mazes, respond to incentives–and giving them an incentive to take your concerns seriously. It means using alternative parties to reward and punish the majors, and attracting voters who may not share an absolutist view of the world. It means running to influence, not to win.

That's what Ralph Nader is trying to do in California, as the Green Party's presidential candidate. He wants to push the Democrats to the left by costing them the nation's richest electoral prize. Running to influence is also what Perot did (unwittingly) in 1992. When millions tuned in to see his chart-filled speeches, the deficit suddenly went from a ritual invocation to a real concern. Most Perot voters knew he couldn't win. Many, in fact, didn't want him to. He is, after all, quite crackers. But because he had no chance, his personal failings didn't matter. A vote for Perot was simply a message.

So, too, are votes for minor parties or, for that matter, for Bill Clinton or Bob Dole. In a race as big as the U.S. presidential election, no one's vote counts. What counts is, in aggregate, the message. Barring unforeseen events, Dole will lose, and deservedly so. Then the question will be, What message did the voters send? And whom can't the parties afford to take for granted?