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DOLE MAY HAVE WHAT IT TAKES, BUT IS IT WHAT NATION WANTS?

HAS SENATE MAJORITY Leader Bob Dole's time finally come or has it already passed?

On Monday Dole officially entered the contest for the GOP presidential nomination in Topeka, Kan., his last symbolic link beyond the loathsome Washington beltway to the ordinary folk of mid-America.Of Dole it cannot be said that he peaked too early. But such is his resilience and political skill that he is the front-runner, at 71, for a shot at the White House that has escaped him for decades.

He gets his chance in an era when his strong suits - experience, a sense of responsible moderation and an instinct for compromise - are scorned by aggressive religious fundamentalists and young GOP congressional know-nothings who have none of them. Ironically, his position as a political father figure is both a strength and a weakness.

"I'd be a stabilizing force," Dole told CNN. Not an exciting message but potentially a reassuring one in a party struggling with a sudden lurch to the right.

This won't be easy, but nothing has come easily to Bob Dole. He can perform ably as a showhorse, but he has always been a workhorse as well.

In a career of more than 40 years, he has outdistanced or made uneasy peace with other first-class Republicans prepared to step on him. Survival has required a delicate balance among what was practical, what was politically possible and even sometimes what was prin-ci-pled.

It still does.

The traditional Republican mainstream that provides him his basic strength is not thrilled with his recent embrace of selected hot-button, right-wing issues - promises to reverse the assault-weapon ban, destroy affirmative action and irresponsibly chop taxes for the rich. But he dare not appear to have been left behind, like an old man out of touch, as his party moves rightward.

Yet the tart tongue that betrayed him too often in the past now merely seems wickedly clever compared with the heavy-handed insults hurled by some of his less experienced GOP competitors.

His consistent efforts to reduce federal deficits resonate well in the current climate, while he has avoided plunging into the prickly thicket of just how much he would deprive the elderly and poor to do this. How well he handles the specifics in the coming year offers yet another test of his talents.

As the front-runner in the polls, he was expected to produce the obligatory partisan confirmation of his status, and he has done so. He draws crowds. He can raise money. He has powerful endorsements, most notably the entire New York state GOP political establishment except for New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Political history is replete with presidential candidates who entered the primary as popular favorites with formidable establishment endorsements and failed to go the distance. Dole's initial show of strength may or may not mean much. Had he been unable to produce it, however, it would certainly have meant much, none of it favorable.

The condensed primary season next year should work to Dole's benefit, if he can repeat his 1988 victory in Iowa and reverse his loss to Vice President George Bush that year in New Hampshire. The subsequent electoral rush should favor the candidate with the early momentum.

Meantime, Dole must play a dual role that leaves him vulnerable to his GOP rivals not only in his campaign mode but in his Senate performance. So far, he has refused to step down from his post and has insisted he can both lead the Senate and run for president.

With the burden of leadership, he must produce legislation or at least make a smashingly good stab at it. When the constitutional amendment to mandate a balanced budget lost by one vote in the Senate, many interpreted it not as the timely defeat of a bad idea but a political black eye for Dole. When the Senate passed a House-generated but slightly trimmed $16 billion spending-cuts bill shortly thereafter, Dole was viewed as having recouped both his authority and his candidacy.

His presidential rivals in the Senate - Phil Gramm of Texas, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard Lugar of Indiana - have no such responsibility, They can grandstand and take potshots whenever they want. The GOP gubernatorial candidates, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pete Wilson of California, have even fewer complications. They don't have to cast controversial votes that can be used against them later in the cam-paign.

If our national focus should shift from domestic issues to some international crisis, however, Dole is in the strongest GOP political position. Lugar, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has credentials there, too. But his recent remark that we ought to consider a military response to free two American civilians in jail in Iraq suggests he may not have sufficient judgment for the presidency. A call to battle that risks American lives over a minor provocation is not a political winner.

And so it goes, pros and cons. Dole is the man to beat. He's older than Ronald Reagan when he took office at the age of 69. But Dole is smarter, full of vinegar and altogether a candidate for all seasons.