Since November's historic election, both men have followed remarkably similar paths. Both have made occasional gestures toward the center--Clinton by proposing a substantial reorganization of HUD and promising regulatory reforms, Dole by indicating interest in tempering welfare reform.
But both have focused most attention on shoring up their ideological flanks. Clinton has proposed raising the minimum wage and has signed an executive order barring federal contractors from hiring replacements for striking workers. He's vigorously defending government programs for the poor and, after giving some ground initially, is emphasizing support for affirmative action.
Dole's gestures to his right have been even more dramatic: He's ramped up opposition to affirmative action, embraced a more sweeping version of "property rights" legislation than he previously supported and promised the powerful National Rifle Assn. that he would seek to overturn the ban on assault weapons after earlier downplaying that possibility.
In one sense, this constitutes Politics 101: shoring up your base before a big fight. But the frequency of these maneuvers also suggests two men who are not entirely confident of their positions. Both are maneuvering as if they feel themselves reacting to, rather than commanding, the forces now driving American politics.
Presidential nominating politics loom over this process for both, but especially for Dole. National surveys consistently give Dole a large lead for the 1996 GOP nomination: The latest Los Angeles Times Poll shows that among possible Republican primary voters nationwide, Dole leads Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas by three to one.
But there is another, less visible reality to the Republican electoral equation. The Republican Party now is being fueled by the mobilized energy of anti-Washington populist groups like the NRA, term-limit advocates and the Christian Coalition. These organizations represent constituencies too large for any GOP presidential hopeful to ignore. A recent private Christian Coalition survey found that "born again" Christians constitute over 40% of likely voters in next year's Republican primaries. The latest Times Poll found that 48% of likely Republican primary voters own a gun.
Not all of those voters hold the most uncompromising positions of the groups that claim to speak in their names, but enough do to give such organizations as the NRA and the Christian Coalition a clout that extends beyond their actual membership, which is formidable enough in low-turnout primaries.
None of these groups view Dole as an enemy, but none burns with enthusiasm for him either. In the Dole camp, there's palpable concern that this populist energy will flow into the campaign of Gramm, who promises a more unflinching brand of conservatism.
In the past few weeks, Dole operatives have been particularly nervous that the NRA would effectively line up behind Gramm. The Dole forces have reason to be concerned: NRA Executive Vice President Wayne R. LaPierre attended Gramm's inaugural presidential fund-raiser last month, and the organization put the Texas senator on the cover of its internal magazine this month. "If we could keep the NRA from endorsing Phil Gramm," Dole campaign manager Scott Reed said recently, "we'll consider it a victory."
Against that backdrop, it's possible to make a persuasive case, in terms of primary election politics, for Dole's recent announcement that he would seek to overturn the assault weapon ban. But pushing for repeal is a much dicier proposition in general election terms--a calculation that shouldn't be absent from a front-runner's mind. Increasingly, gun control seems to resemble abortion as a political issue: The intensity is much greater among opponents than supporters. But even so, two-thirds of the public opposes overturning the assault weapon ban and Clinton is spoiling for a fight with the GOP on the issue.
Dole's willingness to sail into such a head wind suggests to his rivals an insecurity lurking beneath the lofty poll numbers. A front-runner who truly believed the party was consolidating behind him, they argue, would be much less reluctant to disappoint a constituency group, no matter how influential. "Dole is just total defense," says Mark Merritt, the communications director for GOP presidential candidate Lamar Alexander.
If Merritt is correct--and strategists in the other camps think he is--Dole may have to move right many more times in the next year; the risk is that by the time he gets finished, he may have drifted too far to convincingly reassure the center.
With Clinton, primary politics also are a factor in his gestures toward the left since November. Some political operatives in organized labor view Clinton's recent gestures to the union movement as an effort to eliminate the possibility of institutional support for any primary challenge from the left.
That seems plausible, but the principal force impelling Clinton toward the left is the powerful rightward thrust of the Republican Party, particularly in the House. As President, Clinton consistently has been frustrated by his inability to chart a "third way" that brings together Democrats and Republicans; almost perversely, his presidency instead has produced intense polarization on issues from taxes to crime.
That centrifugal dynamic gained incalculable momentum with the rise to power of the House Republicans. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is not an inadvertent polarizer like Clinton; he sharpens divides by design. "What the ('contract with America') was designed to do was not keep 90% of Americans happy but to sustain a majority coalition," says GOP pollster Bill McInturff.
Clinton may want to position himself as a streamliner and reformer of government, but Gingrich has poured out legislation that so purely reflects conservative principles that Clinton has had no choice but to oppose it--or risk a total rebellion within his own coalition. On welfare reform, budget cuts, rethinking the delivery of social services--all causes with which the President wants to be identified--Gingrich has raised the bar beyond Clinton's reach.
In the ultimate irony, Gingrich has forced Clinton--who championed the centrist critique of traditional liberalism that flowered after the 1984 presidential campaign--into echoing Walter F. Mondale's rhetoric about Republican unfairness to the poor. Some rank-and-file House Republicans are growing nervous that Clinton and other Democrats are having success portraying them as flaying the poor to fatten the rich. But the fairness argument didn't save Mondale from a landslide repudiation in 1984, and by relying on it so heavily now, Democrats risk stamping themselves as the die-hard defenders of existing government programs--exactly what Gingrich wants.
For Dole, Gingrich's success at moving his agenda through the House creates a separate problem. Dole's aides worry that failure of the "contract" in the Senate could imperil, if not submerge, his presidential hopes; if he can't deliver the revolution in the Senate, they fear, the party won't consider him the man to continue it from the White House. That anxiety intensifies the pressure on Dole to tilt right.
All of this suggests that the driving force in Washington now is not the President, nor even the commanding front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. If there is a single strategist pulling the strings on both Dole and Clinton, it is Gingrich.
Gingrich and his revolutionary brigades in the House are deliberately defining the terms of debate for both parties in the most stark and most polarizing terms, and aren't likely to surrender that role even after they finish their 100-day sprint. "What's going to happen," says pollster McInturff, "is that by 1996, the middle ground is going to be increasingly hard to find."
In the systematic obliteration of the center, Gingrich is the man at the controls; both Clinton and Dole are largely along for the ride.