The Matter of the Professional Politician : The anti-Washington mood is intensifying. Now, its focus is Steve Forbes. What’s a pragmatist to do?
In their speeches to the nation on Tuesday, President Bill Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) had to contend with a presence looming over the 1996 presidential campaign. Someone who wasn’t there, who holds no office but who’s a threat to both men: Steve Forbes.
Forbes is the latest in a long tradition of anti-Washington outsiders that stretches back to Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Gary Hart, Ross Perot and Colin L. Powell. Forbes is the man of the moment. He’s running second to Dole in Iowa and New Hampshire and in polls of Republicans nationwide. And he’s gaining fast.
Forbes’ surge proves there’s a huge market for an anti-Washington outsider, a nonpolitician who knows how to get things done. Ever since Powell announced his decision not to run last November, that market has been looking for a product. Right now, Forbes is capturing the fancy of anti-Washington voters.
The market is driven by frustration over the interminable mess in Washington. And over the prospect of having to choose between two lifelong professional politicians. “Oh my God,” voters said when Powell announced he wouldn’t run. “It’s Clinton or Dole.”
Both Clinton and Dole tried to respond to that frustration in their speeches. Clinton, in his State of the Union Address, succeeded. Dole, delivering the GOP response, failed.
Clinton tried to distance himself from the mess in Washington. “We have to go forward to an era of working together,” he told the Congress and the country. “We have to reach across the lines to find common ground.”
The President tried to sound nonpartisan: “There is now broad bipartisan agreement that permanent deficit spending must come to an end. I compliment the Republicans for the dedication and energy you have brought to this task.”
He co-opted Republican themes: “Our federal government today is the smallest it has been in 30 years” . . . “One strike and you’re out” . . . “We are increasing inspections to prevent the hiring of illegal aliens.” Haley Barbour, national chairman of the GOP, paid Clinton the ultimate compliment when he said after the speech, “For a moment, I thought Ronald Reagan had taken over Bill Clinton’s body.”
The President could position himself above the partisan fray for one big reason. He’s the first Democratic President to be unopposed for renomination since 1936.
Dole’s not so lucky. He’s got to fight for the GOP nomination. And his leading opponent right now is Forbes. Dole’s response to the President’s speech was aimed as much at Forbes as it was at Clinton.
Dole drew lines in the sand. He said, “We have starkly different philosophies of government and profoundly different visions of America.” He rejected the President’s call for “common ground,” saying, “such a place appears to be elusive.” He depicted himself, uncharacteristically, as a man of deep conviction, not as a deal-maker. “There comes a time,” Dole said, “when even practical leaders must refuse to bend or yield.”
The Senate majority leader attacked “liberal judges” who “question the participation of religious people in public life, treating them as fanatics out of step with America.” And here’s a Dole line that could have come from Rush Limbaugh: “It’s as though our government, our institutions and our culture have been hijacked by liberals.”
Republicans who vote in primaries and caucuses aren’t looking for moderation or compromise. They want a candidate who shows some fight. Dole used his speech to rally the conservative base of the GOP against Forbes, whom he wants to paint as an impostor. It’s the same thing Democrat Walter F. Mondale did when he faced a similar threat from Hart back in 1984. Mondale did it with one devastating question: “Where’s the beef?”
Mondale’s tactic carried a risk. He painted himself as an old-fashioned, big-government liberal--something he was. Dole’s tactic also carries a risk. He’s painting himself as a hard-line conservative ideologue--something he’s not.
Political figures should never pretend to be something they’re not. Remember when George Bush went shopping and pretended to be an ordinary guy? Or when Carter said he “lusted in his heart” after women so people would think he was one of the boys? It didn’t work in either case. It just called attention to their weaknesses.
In his speech, Clinton was trying to avoid the mistake Bush made when he delivered what turned out to be his last State of the Union address in 1992. The build-up to that speech was enormous. The country was waiting for Bush to lay out his agenda for a second term. Did he have a plan to turn the economy around?
The voters didn’t hear it on Jan. 28, 1992. Bush lost his bid for reelection that night. Three weeks later, he was embarrassed by Patrick J. Buchanan’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary.
Clinton used his State of the Union speech to lay out his agenda. It was the agenda of a New Democrat: “Big government does not have all the answers” . . . “To the media, I say you should create movies, CDs and television shows you’d want your own children and grandchildren to enjoy” . . . “For too long, our welfare system has undermined the values of family and work.”
Clinton’s message: I’m really not a big government liberal. Forget about gigantic health care plans and gays in the military and midnight basketball. Even affirmative action went unmentioned in the President’s speech. When he said--twice--"The era of big government is over,” it was intended to be the battle cry of a New Democrat.
Dole heard it differently. “More government. Bigger government. More meddlesome government. If you listened closely,” Dole said, “that’s what President Clinton talked about tonight.”
Is Clinton also pretending to be something he’s not? The President was telling the country, read my rhetoric, not my record. Dole gave his reply in garbled street slang: “We will challenge President Clinton again and again to walk the talk he talks so well.”
Clinton said exactly the right things to go after the anti-Washington vote. But was he believable as a New Democrat? He was in 1992. But in 1992, he didn’t have a record.
On the other hand, Dole’s bitter partisanship may have been too believable. At one point, he seemed to be defending gridlock: “What we are really arguing about are the values that will shape our nation.”
Dole’s speech, aimed at the GOP faithful, backfired with the rest of the country. The reviews were devastating. Dole was called “stiff,” “lackluster,” “harsh,” “tired” and, worst of all, “old.” Dole’s rivals didn’t waste any time getting back at Dole for usurping the spotlight. His response, they insisted, proves he can not beat Clinton.
“It was clear to anybody who watched that Bob Dole cannot and will not beat Bill Clinton,” Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas said. Buchanan put it this way: “Our pitcher got shelled, and we’ve got to go to the bullpen if we want to win the Series.” That may be a very powerful counter-argument among the party faithful Dole was trying to rally.
Back in 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford gave his State of the Union speech, 46% of Americans thought things were going well, according to one poll. The election that year turned out to be close.
In early 1980, just 34% of Americans thought things were going well. Bad news for Carter. By the end of the year, he was voted out.
People thought the State of the Union was very good at the beginning of 1984. It was “Morning in America” and 68% said things were going well. Reagan got reelected.
At the beginning of 1988, 62% believed things were going well. Republicans kept the White House.
1992 was a different story. Just 28% said things were going well in the country. We all know what happened to Bush that year.
What’s the figure now? 48%--not terrific, like 1984 or 1988. Not terrible, like 1980 or 1992. It looks like a close election, mirroring 1976.
The anti-Washington vote is the most powerful force in U.S. politics. The rise of Forbes proves it. Eventually, Clinton and Dole will have to compete for the anti-Washington vote. The problem is, neither of those two consummate politicians is credible as an outsider. It’s going to be interesting to watch the two of them try to capture that message.*