Coming out of their San Diego convention, the Republicans had a shot at regaining the White House—a long shot, to be sure, but by no means impossible. Two months later, on the eve of the election, their hopes of capturing the presidency are nil; they will be lucky to retain control of Congress. True, it ain’t over ’till it’s over, but barring some dramatic eleventh-hour change of heart, the electorate is going to give us four more years of William Jefferson Clinton.
In a sense, you can’t blame them. Whatever the voters’ discontent with Bill Clinton, Bob Dole has given them little reason to turn the man out. After three “debates” between the nominees, viewers, by roughly two-to-one margins, thought Clinton and Gore bested their opponents. However one measures success in these contrived and constricted productions, the sad truth is that the challengers hardly laid a glove on their opponents.
Of the Kemp-Gore exchange, perhaps the less said the better. The man many Republicans looked to for articulation of moral and cultural issues fumbled badly. On the one occasion when he had a chance to talk about partial-birth abortion—a home-run pitch if ever there was one—Kemp was almost apologetic for his pro-life position and ran away from the issue as soon as he chanted his standard litany.
In Dole’s defense, it may be said (especially of his second appearance with Clinton) that he was the very best Bob Dole he knew how to be. But his talents, so admirably suited to the legislative process, seemed out of place in a presidential race. In the first debate, the best he could muster was a series of half-thoughts, delivered in a kind of Legispeak Esperanto that had most of the viewing audience scratching their heads. Even on the centerpiece of his platform, the fifteen-percent tax cut, Dole never articulated a principled political rationale for his plan.
Clinton, for his part, was scarcely better. But in this age, when “feeling your pain” displaces talk of the common good, he suffered not the slightest embarrassment at reducing the presidency to the status of a neighborhood social services office. One would not have been surprised had Clinton promised to deliver diapers personally to every new mom in America. Together, the two candidates inadvertently confirmed Karl Marx’s prediction that in a socialist regime, the governance of men will be replaced by the administration of things. But politics is, or ought to be, concerned with the public things, not merely the satisfaction of private wants. Neither candidate evinced even a minimal understanding of the difference.
Above all, Dole failed to carry the fight on those issues where Clinton is most vulnerable. He gingerly danced around but never landed on such matters as preferential treatment based on race and sex, corruption in the Clinton administration, and abortion. Clearly uncomfortable with such topics, Dole’s cryptic allusions left his audience wondering why he bothered to talk about them at all. How politically cleansing it would have been had Dole insisted that the president promise not to pardon his cronies!
If the Republicans lose decisively, as now seems inevitable, there will be endless analysis and recriminations aplenty among party activists. But after the dust settles, serious thought will have to be given to whether Republicans have any fundamental principles that differentiate them from the Democrats. Based on the Dole-Kemp performance, one would be hard-pressed to name them.