by Patrick J. Buchanan – January 8, 1996
These columns were quick to praise Bob Dole for assisting President Clinton on Bosnia, an act of bipartisanship in the national interest. But Mr. Dole’s assist to the president last week on the budget makes us wonder all over again how committed Mr. Dole really is to changing the Beltway status quo.
For a year now, Mr. Dole has attached himself to Newt Gingrich and the House Republican agenda like a surfer riding a wave. That positioning has helped his presidential prospects, blunting doubts among many Republicans about his long tenure inside the Beltway and his many tax-raising episodes in the past. Yet when push really came to shove last week, Mr. Dole joined Bill Clinton in blaming House Republicans for shutting down the government.
Now, we understand the difference here was largely over political strategy. Mr. Dole did not believe that keeping part of the government closed was politically useful. But by breaking publicly with Newt Gingrich last week, he made that strategy’s failure a self-fulfilling prophecy. GOP divisions became the story instead of Bill Clinton’s vetoes. Instead of helping other Republicans corner the president, Mr. Dole helped the president corner other Republicans. He made it inevitable that House Republicans would have to give way, helping Mr. Clinton reinforce his year-long campaign to portray the GOP Congress as “extremist.”
Liberals who want to preserve the status quo were duly grateful. “I thank Senator Dole. He was right,” declared Texas Democrat Chet Edwards, while other liberals taunted Republicans by quoting Mr. Dole’s refrain from earlier in the week that “enough is enough.” On Sunday Sam Donaldson welcomed back the “Old Bob Dole.” Republicans were less flattering to the Kansan, especially in private.
Perhaps Mr. Dole is already thinking about November, therefore trying to win Beltway praise as a “statesman” in contrast to Newt Gingrich the rabble-rouser. But if so, Republicans should be even more worried. A main Clinton strategy this year will be to try to separate the GOP presidential nominee from the Republican Congress, much as Harry Truman did to Tom Dewey in 1948. We know what happened in that election. If Mr. Dole wants to play Tom Dewey, we sure wish he’d tell us before Republicans nominate him.
This latest gambit seems part of a recent Dole pattern of behaving as if he already is the GOP presidential nominee. He walked away from Saturday’s campaign debate in South Carolina, claiming a scheduling conflict. But his man for Carolina, former governor Carroll Campbell, was more honest when he said,” We’re not out to provide a forum for people who are at one or two percent in the polls to attack Bob Dole.” It’s enough to make us wonder if Mr. Dole isn’t afraid to appear in unscripted events, lest he reveal what he really thinks.
The broader worry here is that Republican voters need to know if Mr. Dole is really capable of carrying the cause of GOP reform against Mr. Clinton through November. Especially if there is no budget deal, the election will be a clash of philosophies, of the role and purpose of government. And even if there is a deal, Mr. Clinton will try to caricature Republican reforms as monsters from the deep. The last thing Republicans need is a nominee who runs from the Republican House, who is defensive about their agenda. The slippery, deceptive Mr. Clinton will have a field day.
Mr. Dole’s budget maneuvering last week was worrisome because it reminded us of the Old Dole, the one who cares mostly about tactical dances, about deal-making and about what the Washington Post thinks. This is the same Dole who every so often, when he’s not on his script, suggests to Tim Russert or Johnny Apple, or some other Washington oracle, that he really doesn’t believe all the things he’s been saying. Republican voters who remember the Bush administration, and the Dewey candidacy, deserve to know if Bob Dole can, or even wants to, carry their revolution.