A Lesson for Dole

John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980

Less than two weeks after absorbing three consecutive primary defeats, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has secured the GOP nomination. Serious reflection on the alternatives was enough to cause Republican primary voters to accept the only rational choice--hard as it was for some to swallow. But while memories are still fresh, certain aspects of those difficult weeks must be examined.

Dole should have learned a lesson during the debate in South Carolina. Dole had lost in New Hampshire, Delaware and Arizona but seemed comfortably ahead in South Carolina. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and Steve Forbes both realized that unless they could introduce some new question into the race, they would be overwhelmed in the eight primaries on the following Tuesday.

The debate participants were asked whether the state of South Carolina should fly the Confederate flag over the state capital. Dole, Forbes and Alexander all begged off--insisting this was a matter for the people of South Carolina. Patrick J. Buchanan captured the national news clip out of the debate by launching into a diatribe about his Confederate grandfather, Southern honor and other race-baiting subjects.

I am ashamed that in the party of Abraham Lincoln, among four men vying to be the party's presidential nominee, none had the courage to respond properly to this. For three of them, it was also poor political judgment.

For Dole, who says he will "bring us together" if he is elected president, it was an opportunity to say that, while it was a question for the people of South Carolina, flying this flag on a public building is an affront to the one-third of the state's citizens who are black.

Would Dole have lost votes because of this? I doubt it. Buchanan had all the racist votes already, and any marginal loss in Dole's support would have been more than made up for by attrition in the support for Alexander and Forbes. More important, such a statement would have displayed principle, forthrightness and caring to the rest of the country--qualities Dole says he possesses but the people never observe in his actions. Men who stick up for their beliefs, when doing so might harm them politically, are attractive candidates, deserving of enthusiastic support. It was a moment when Dole could have shown himself as presidential, even without having a vision.

Forbes, the professed "non-politician," knew he could not win in South Carolina and had nothing to lose. He could have given a short speech on equality, finishing off with the statement that blacks walking by the state capitol should wonder whether they could receive fair treatment from a Legislature meeting under a flag that symbolized their enslavement. Had he done so, he definitely would have gained support in New England and New York--which was critical to his campaign's credibility. Alexander, the "new South" governor, looked pretty "old South" in his reticence. He, too, desperately needed to distinguish himself from the crowd, and had nothing to lose.

But only Buchanan spoke--and made the national news--so people across the country were left to conclude that the other three GOP candidates didn't really disagree with him.

We didn't have to wait long to find out whether Dole had learned anything from his most recent brush with possible defeat. Last Sunday, flushed with victory in South Carolina, he appeared on the ABC Sunday morning news show. After agreeing with a questioner that abortion involved the taking of a human life, he was asked why he supported exceptions in the cases of rape and incest. The man who says he is the party's most long-standing foe of abortion didn't seem to know why he supported these exceptions, and mumbled it had something to do with "politics."

Dole has supported the Hyde Amendment, which embodies these exceptions, since the 1970s--but says he doesn't know why. Perhaps in the mind of a legislator, once you settle on a position, you tend to forget the "why"; but if you want to be president, the "why" can't be forgotten for a moment. For those who accuse Dole of being as unprincipled as our incumbent, who accuse him of being the consummate insider, for whom everything is negotiable, who insist Dole is not facile enough to debate with Bill Clinton, Dole managed to provide new evidence that these charges might be true.

Now, I fully intend to vote for Dole this fall, and I shall do so happily. Like so many Republicans, however, I am frustrated because he either can't, or won't, show himself to be the decent, fair-minded person I know him to be.

There is an inevitability to Dole's nomination now. Primary voters who had hoped to find someone better now know this is impossible and will fall in line behind Dole's candidacy. Even some who might have supported Forbes or Buchanan will vote for Dole to end the nomination race quickly, so the party can come together to beat Clinton in the fall.

When Dole lost some of those early primaries, he began to campaign in the company of fellow officeholders--often having them state the case for his nomination instead of doing so himself. Dole is too shy to ask people directly for support, and so I applaud the inclusion of other officeholders to say about him what he cannot say for himself.

You see, if the Republicans are to win this fall, it will be because they have convinced the voters that, as a party, they can be trusted to control both Congress and the executive branch. This means all the officeholders and all the GOP candidates at every level running together, vouching for each other, contributing their individual popularity to the strength of the ticket. This is the first time in 70 years the Republicans have been strong enough to seek the presidency as a party and it is exciting.

More than 25 years ago, when he first entered the Senate, a friend asked Dole how he liked it. The seniority system didn't bother him ("One good cold spell, and I'll be in the top 10") but something else did. "Everybody here is looking for a parade to stand out in front of," he said. Dole has his limitations as a presidential candidate, but as the leader of a parade, he looks just fine.

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