• U.S.


3 minute read
Michael Kramer

For a few brief moments last week, Bob Dole soared. after his self-destructive waffles about tobacco, assault weapons and abortion, Dole found in education reform an issue on which he and Bill Clinton disagree so fundamentally that the President’s tactic of “me-tooing” Dole’s proposals is simply not an option.

“If you’re making $15,000 a year,” Dole said at one stop during a four-state, three-day “education tour” through the Midwest, “your one hope and your one dream is that your children will have better opportunities because they will have a better education.” But that won’t happen without competition, Dole argues. Parents, he says, should be given vouchers for use at any school they want, including private and parochial institutions. That idea (which Roman Catholic voters love) is constitutionally dubious, but that’s not why Clinton rejects it.

The prime opponent to any change that threatens public schools is the National Education Association, the powerful teachers’ group that has long supported Clinton’s campaigns–so much so, in fact, that Dole’s labeling Clinton the NEA’s “pliant pet” is not at all wide of the mark. “I won’t [make] education decisions that you’re not a part of making,” Clinton told the NEA in 1991. “I won’t forget [who] brought me to the White House.”

As anyone familiar with the litany of distress knows, choice in some form is appealing. Falling test scores, rising dropout rates and poor teaching demand drastic change.

Dole wants a $5 billion program that would provide vouchers worth up to $1,500 a year. That would permit lower- and middle-income parents of about 4 million school-age children a wider variety of schools to choose from. Clinton needn’t worry, Dole noted last week; Chelsea Clinton attends a private school. The problem, Dole said, is that those without “money, power or office” can’t follow the President’s example. “Here’s an issue where we Republicans are with the average guy and the Democrats are with the bosses,” says former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. “Choice can drive a wedge in our favor against Clinton.”

Remarkably for Dole, his comments were smoothly conveyed in several set speeches, and a press corps eager for a race worth covering lapped it up.

Unfortunately, the essential Dole–a candidate too often disengaged even from his own policy prescriptions–re-emerged at an unscripted education forum outside Detroit. At one point, Dole missed a questioner’s thrust entirely but smiled goofily as Michigan Governor John Engler preposterously declared Dole’s response “right on.” Sensing disaster, Engler moved to end the torture and asked Dole to “wrap up.” Unprepared, Dole said he would “yield my time” to others in the audience. When Engler tried again later, Dole blandly read from a crib sheet and won only tepid applause from the carefully screened G.O.P. crowd.

In Minneapolis a day earlier, Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson looked on the bright side. “It takes time to hit your stride in a campaign,” he said, ignoring Dole’s 20-year quest for the presidency. “I sense that Bob is starting to get ready to hit his.” That may be so. But Dole is so lame without a script that he might consider skipping the fall debates, where he may prove only that he’ll never be ready for prime time.

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