NEWS ANALYSIS : Dole Follows Clinton's Steps to Outrun Rivals

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

In maneuvering his way to the brink of the Republican presidential nomination, Bob Dole has taken a page out of President Clinton's playbook.

On issue after issue, Dole has frustrated his Republican rivals by emulating a tactic that Clinton has used repeatedly against the GOP since 1994.

From immigration to trade to the flat tax, Dole has expressed broad philosophical agreement with his opponents, thus denying them the clear ideological contrast they have desperately hoped to establish. But in the same breath, Dole has typically rejected the most controversial specific elements within their agendas--leaving him free to condemn his rivals' ideas for revising the tax code or imposing new tariffs on foreign imports as "extreme" and "risky."

That intricate minuet is exactly the strategy Clinton has also employed over the past year. While expressing broad sympathy with congressional Republicans on the need to reform welfare, cut taxes and balance the budget, Clinton has vetoed the GOP's specific proposals to achieve those goals--and convinced many Americans that he is protecting them against changes that go too far.

After spending months trying to blur ideological distinctions against his Republican rivals, Dole as the presumptive nominee now faces the challenge of sharpening them against a president who is skilled at controlling the center of debate.

"Dole's problem is he doesn't have a whole lot of things he'd do that we wouldn't do, and the ones he'd do are unpopular," said one senior White House aide.

In an interview on his campaign plane, Dole acknowledged that he had "probably not" yet laid down the foundation for a case against Clinton in the fall. But he added: "I think we're building a case; we have a pretty good idea of where we want to go."

Dole said he recognized a need to broaden his agenda if he wins the nomination and said he has been talking to advisors about making new proposals relating to education and the environment, though he offered no specifics.

"We are looking at a whole range of things," he said. "If we are going to attract people to our campaign and our candidacy, we have to give them some reason to do that."

In fact--while cautious to avoid entirely looking past the primaries--Dole has already advanced some clear lines of argument with Clinton. He has criticized the performance of the economy over the past four years and has portrayed the president as the "one impediment" to the changes the GOP promised in 1994.

He also has attacked Clinton's economic record, blaming him for the stagnation in average wages--just the issue Clinton wielded with great force against President Bush in 1992.

Overall, it is clear that Dole envisions the 1996 general election largely as an extension of the dispute between Clinton and the Republican Congress about the GOP legislative blueprint.

The problem, of course, is that at least so far, the polls would indicate that Clinton seems to be winning that dispute. To obtain a different verdict, Dole will have to be more successful than he and his fellow GOP congressional leaders have been at convincing voters that their disagreement with Clinton is something more than differing means to reach a common goal.

But Dole's own success in the nomination race shows how difficult it can be to kindle such an ideological firefight against an agile opponent determined to avoid it.

Throughout the campaign, the top priority for all of Dole's rivals has been to establish clear distinctions against the 72-year-old front-runner. To some extent they have succeeded: Patrick J. Buchanan clearly appeals to voters who consider Dole insufficiently conservative, while Steve Forbes has used Dole as his foil in portraying himself as a political outsider.

But on the very issues his rivals hoped would brightly illuminate these broad contrasts, Dole has consistently steered the debate onto terrain that muddies the differences between them.

Though Dole hasn't embraced Buchanan's call for a five-year moratorium on immigration, for instance, neither has he endorsed the current level of immigration, calling instead for a vague "modest and temporary" reduction.

Likewise on trade, Dole has denounced Buchanan as a "protectionist." But the Senate majority leader hasn't defended free trade; instead he has sounded hawkish notes of his own--urging more aggressive enforcement of existing trade laws and opposing the expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Dole's strategy of envelop and sting has been clearest on the flat tax, whose initial appeal helped fuel Forbes' rise to the top of the polls earlier this year. Dole has never rejected the flat tax out of hand: To the contrary, he's repeatedly called for a "fairer, flatter and simpler" tax system and said that "in principle" he supports taxing all income at a single rate.

But beneath that gauzy umbrella of support, Dole has perforated the key elements of the flat tax. He's denounced Forbes' plan for eliminating the deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations; on Monday, in New York, he also called for maintaining the deduction for state and local taxes--and even suggested that a single-rate tax may be unfeasible.

Similarly, Dole has run ads denouncing Forbes' plan to divert part of the payroll tax for younger workers into private investments outside the Social Security trust fund; but at other points, Dole has himself expressed general sympathy for allowing younger workers to opt out of Social Security.

In all of this, Dole's maneuvering is reminiscent of Clinton's own efforts to find a "third way" between seemingly incompatible viewpoints. Indeed, on several of these issues--like legal immigration, where Clinton too has called for modest reductions--Dole has landed not far from the president.

Dole's camp believes that it can establish sharp distinctions with Clinton on the central issue of government's role in society. Day after day, the Kansas Republican hammers Clinton for vetoing the GOP plans to balance the federal budget over seven years, cut taxes and end the federal entitlement to welfare. The president, Dole insists on the stump, talks reform but defends "the status quo."

Clinton unquestionably supports a more activist federal government than Dole. But it could be difficult for Dole to create a crystalline contrast with a president who has touted his own seven-year plan to balance the budget--even while vetoing the GOP legislation aimed at accomplishing that goal.

"I don't know how anyone on our side wins that argument at this point," said David Tell, the opinion editor at the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine. "That's not just a Dole problem--that's a Republican problem."

Yet Dole is confident he can challenge Clinton's credibility as an agent of reforming government. "Well, he's had three years to do it and he hasn't done it," he said. "Do you give him four more years to do nothing: welfare reform, tax credits, Medicaid, balance the budget, all these things?"

Social issues offer potentially sharper distinctions between the two men should Dole make it to the general election. Dole wants to ban abortion (except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother), lift the ban on assault weapons, establish English as the official U.S. language and provide vouchers for parents to send their children to private schools--all causes Clinton opposes.

But it is unclear how hard Dole will press any of those issues. Opposition to abortion and gun control motivates important elements of the GOP coalition, but the balance of public opinion on both issues sides with Clinton. Dole has public opinion with him in his call for the elimination of programs that provide racial preferences in hiring or contracting. But, although Dole on Thursday endorsed the California ballot initiative to ban racial preferences, the racially charged dispute makes many Republicans queasy and Dole rarely mentions the issue on the stump anymore.

Citing such caution, Dole's remaining rivals say he hasn't produced an agenda bold enough to create a clear choice with the president. Even while granting him a landslide victory in New York, Republican voters seem to agree: An exit poll showed that only about four out of 10 respondents said Dole has any "new ideas."

"I don't see where Dole contrasts himself, with the exception of abortion, which he's not going to want to talk about that much," said Greg Mueller, the communications director for Buchanan.

Dole already has more than two dozen task forces studying a wide array of domestic and foreign policy issues, and he said he planned to supplement their work by convening a panel of "more senior people who have been in high places throughout the business sector or whatever" to help him draft a general-election agenda as he moves closer toward the nomination.

But given both Clinton's demonstrated willingness to tilt rightward to co-opt Republican themes and Dole's own lack of enthusiasm for ideological debate, the GOP front-runner seems likely to increasingly try to channel an eventual debate with Clinton toward personal characteristics: leadership, experience, judgment. When Dole says that America needs a president that has "been tested and tested and tested again," he invests his words with a passion he rarely displays when he urges voters to hand him the reins of a revolution to retrench the federal government.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
52°