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The Political Interest: THE DANGER OF DULLNESS

4 minute read
Michael Kramer

RICHARD NIXON USED TO SAY THAT IT DIDN’T MUCH MATTER if a politician was loved or hated so long as he commanded attention. “The worst sin in politics,” he said, “is being boring.” And that is exactly Bob Dole’s problem. After his “must win” victory in South Carolina, Dole has made some headway toward the nomination he has lost twice before–thanks mostly to the flatness of the field around him. But if he fails again, or can’t cut it against Bill Clinton next fall, the reason will be clear. It is Dole’s startling inability to articulate why he wants to be President, beyond echoing George Bush’s promise to “handle whatever comes up” better than the other guy.

It was all supposed to change after Dole lost the Arizona primary last week. “You’re gonna see the real Bob Dole from now on,” he pledged. Great, but when? At stops in the South and New England last week, Dole intoned the same old content-free bromides: “It’s about the future. It’s about America. It’s about freedom. It’s about family. It’s about values.” There were, admittedly, a few additions to the familiar litany. “It’s about intolerance,” Dole said, “which I won’t tolerate.” And my favorite: “We believe in decency and integrity, and we ought to make them national policy.”

It fell to the Great Polarizer to describe all this accurately. Dole’s campaign, said Pat Buchanan in the South Carolina debate, is “vapid” and “hollow”–as the candidate demonstrated when he blew a particularly ripe opportunity last week. With Buchanan pushing his nativist protectionism elsewhere in the state, Dole toured the bustling BMW plant near Spartanburg, a symbol of South Carolina’s embrace of the global economy. “It was a perfect chance to hit a home run for free trade and the interconnected world economy,” says Governor David Beasley, an energetic Dole supporter. So what did Dole do? Nothing. He stood by quietly, speaking only to introduce some surrogates, who did their best to explain what Dole should have explained. His staff members blamed Dole’s reticence on poor advance work. “But he’d been to the same plant before,” complains Beasley. “He knows what it represents. Allies like me can get people’s attention, but the candidate has to make the sale himself. Dole should have walked to the microphones and fired it up.”

This isn’t simply a campaign problem. Successful Presidents govern through persuasion. The educating skills one needs to win the job are required to conduct it forcefully, which is why the BMW nonevent is so disturbing. Yet it confirms Dole’s disdain for the bully pulpit. When he ran in 1988, Dole said, “The press always wants me to have a vision. If I had one, you’d say it was no good. So I’ve thought about the ‘Vision of the Month Club.’ I’d have one for spring and one for the fall just for the media, and you’d point out the inconsistencies. You’d say, ‘That’s the wrong one,’ and I’d say, ‘O.K., well, I’ve got another one.'”

When I reminded Dole of those words last summer, he muttered his standard “Hmmmmm” and mumbled, “Yeah, I guess this time I’ve really got to say why I want the thing, you know. I mean, what I’d do with it, right? Got to get some new ideas and flesh ’em out. Not all at once. You can’t do it in one big sermon. It’ll come.” Maybe so, but it hasn’t yet. If it doesn’t soon, Buchanan’s verdict–“Bob’s sooo boring”–will be the electorate’s too, and Richard Nixon will be proved right once again.

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