Committee Of Correspondence

Advice for Dole

Chris DeMuth
8:38 a.m.  Monday  7/29/96

American politics is animated today, as it has been for many years, by disillusionment with “big government” and distress over the degeneration of social and cultural institutions. These attitudes have objective, persistent causes: the Republicans exploited them brilliantly in the 1994 elections and should not suppose the results were a fluke. President Clinton’s political recovery since 1994 is due to his having moved adroitly to a political “center” that is well to the right of what it has been for several generations. Bob Dole’s challenge is to persuade an electoral majority that he is more likely than Bill Clinton to make deep reforms to the lumbering federal establishment and to provide moral support–and where appropriate policy support–for social regeneration. Mr. Dole is in a good position to do this with respect to social and cultural issues, because his past positions on these issues have been fairly consistent and because Mr. Clinton’s flexibility is constrained by powerful constituency groups within the Democratic Party and by the middle-aged vestiges of 1960s counterculturalism within his own administration. Thus Mr. Dole can be expected to make effective use of the school choice and violent crime issues and of Mr. Clinton’s veto of the partial-birth abortion bill. He would do well, too, to treat the litigation explosion as a social/cultural issue rather than an economic issue–part and parcel of the general tendency to avoid personal responsibility and blame others for every misfortune–and to hammer incessantly on the president’s veto, at the behest of the trial lawyers, of the tort reform bill. It is a shame that Mr. Dole has lost his nerve on racial quotas; assuming he is now unwilling to oppose them on grounds of principle and African-American progress, he should at least advance strong opposition to the egregious “minority set-asides” in federal contracting and licensing, which virtually everyone understands to be deeply corrupt and corrupting but which President Clinton would have great difficulty opposing forthrightly. Finally, the recent spate of unsettling terrorist attacks provides Mr. Dole an opportunity to fuse domestic anxieties with his own long-standing advocacy of adequate funding for defenses against missile and other terrorist attacks on U.S. citizens. There is a risk here, as in some of the positions I’ve mentioned above, that too-clever campaign tactics will muddle larger Republican ambitions and make it more difficult to achieve those ambitions should a Dole administration come to pass. But Mr. Dole is highly constrained: he is challenging an incumbent who is himself a world-class salami tactician, and the GENERAL evisceration of U.S. defenses is unlikely to provide much political traction in this year’s election. One’s hope must be that voters understand full well that office seekers speak in code: that the issues they select and emphasize are intended in part as metaphors for the directions they will pursue if elected. Mr. Dole’s biggest problems concern the disestablishment of the federal leviathan, which he is understood to have played a significant role in building and defending (albeit as a legislator). I believe that tax reform is the key to signaling his intention to greatly reduce the political regimentation of the nation’s economic and social life. The way to do this is to advocate something akin to the Steve Forbes Flat Tax, with two critical revisions based on the results of the debates in the Republican primaries: First, corporate earnings would be taxed at the level of the individual (interest and dividend income), and second, the new tax law would be advocated on grounds of fairness, simplicity, transparency, and elimination of special-interest favoritism, not on grounds of economic growth (certainly not on grounds of achieving any planned growth target). What would be left would be a single tax rate for every American above a certain income (calibrated according to family exemptions), the elimination of “double taxation” of savings and investments, the “1040 on a postcard” and significant downsizing of the IRS, the decimation of Washington’s Gucci Gulch, and an equal sharing of the tax burden by all Americans. Steve Forbes has already demonstrated the great popularity of the approach sketched here. In contrast, the tax-cut proposal Mr. Dole is now contemplating is not much different, as a political matter, from Mr. Clinton’s proposal for new tax breaks for parents with kids in college: Both DEPEND on the unpopularity of the current tax morass by handing out partial relief, rather than by pointing a way out of the morass. In any event I feel certain that tax-cut promises are now so heavily discounted by the electorate as to be worthless, and that economic-growth promises are too problematic and un-Republican (should Republicans propose a five-year plan or Humphrey-Hawkins Act for private economic growth?) to have any political “legs.” A Dole Flat Tax would, however, require real nerve in one respect: appreciating that the media and the Congressional Democrats have hugely overplayed their hand on “income inequality.” Americans today, excluding those who are truly poor and pay no income taxes, are the wealthiest and most equal people that have ever walked the planet (and the least envious of their neighbors); income redistribution has accordingly lost most of its resonance in our politics, and is increasingly understood as amounting to middle-class people picking each other’s pockets, largely for the benefit of Washington croupiers. The first party to realize this, and thereby free itself of tax-policy incrementalism, is going to gain a Microsoft-size share of the electoral market; it is unlikely to be the Democrats–President Clinton would find himself as constrained here as on tort reform–so the opportunity is the Republican’s to seize or blow. With respect to spending reform, Mr. Dole should not flinch from being as proud as Mr. Clinton of the substantial reductions in federal spending, personnel, and agencies achieved by the 104th Congress. The big unsettled issues are the big middle-class entitlements, Social Security and Medicare. But even Mr. Clinton has not been reticent to discuss privatizing Social Security–transforming it over a generation into a program of real private retirement savings–while criticizing the idea on grounds that are easily answered. Mr. Dole’s established credibility on social security issues gives him a good base to begin discussing these issues now, even in the course of an election campaign–a campaign in which millions of working aged voters who believe they will never see a Social Security check remain up for grabs. Gov. Frank Keating
10:17 a.m.  Monday  7/29/96

I believe the American electorate has three questions to ask themselves about Senator Dole. 1) Who is Bob Dole? 2) Is he someone I like? 3) Where is he leading the country? I believe Sen. Dole IS likable and desirable. The public doesn’t want to vote for a grouch, but they certainly will vote for someone who is stern and worthy of their respect. He is a very fine man, but people don’t see that. My advice for Sen. Dole to articulate his leadership qualities: don’t run from controversy. People want to know that their leaders will respond to every challenge and controversy. If the NAACP or the NEA invite you to speak, accept and outline your vision. The group may or may not agree with you, but you can speak over them and to the American people. Sen. Dole needs to outline a clear, simple, values-laden domestic agenda for the American people which restores the integrity of the family, which is legally friendly to the appointment of judges, which articulates a strong tax cut philosophy. On the international side, the Dole vision should focus on a three or four item agenda of a strong national defense which paints the United States as a leader and not an equal in a multi-national organization. Sen. Dole should also stay focused on an issue that is very important to the American public, values and ethics. The public wants its leaders to have a moral compass, even in the age of Clinton where values don’t matter at all and character doesn’t matter at all. Americans may not think having a hollow president matters, but it does. The Office of the President sets the standard for authority and pride in this country. It’s all part of the nation’s character. The president may be a great campaigner but someone has to govern and it’s time for the adults to return. Dole must do courageous things to contrast him and Clinton. Bob Dole should be allowed to be himself. Campaigning in open shirts and a relaxed look does nothing to impress the American people. A younger man in an open shirt or a golf shirt looks like he is on vacation. An older man in the same attire looks like he is retired. A man running for president should look like neither. You want Sen. Dole to always look like he is in charge, vigorous and efficient. People are not sure Bill Clinton has the character to be president. He is a bright man but doesn’t stand for anything. There is no moral compass and no political compass other than reelection. Sen. Dole needs to focus on that contrast in order to impress the American voter. Mary Matalin
11:06 a.m.  Monday  7/29/96

OK, I’ll take your bait … “let Dole be Dole.” The best advice for any candidate for any race is always to be yourself. Especially in this era of mega-communications, the real person will emerge in short order. Voters can detect discomfort with a position and they are especially turned off by posturing. Hence, the ephemeral popularity of the “populist” Perot. Though his solutions were phony, he provided the authenticity voters are starving for. That’s why it’s particularly sad that the mainstream media has forced Bob Dole into a restricted-media mode. The positive for the Dole campaign is coverage of his speeches–through which his message emerges. The negative for the voters (and ironically, the media themselves, now that their accessibility to the candidate will be limited to speeches only) is a undimensional candidate. People warm to peccadilloes: speaking in the third person, witty asides, etc. Voters want to get a “sense” of the candidate; they want to ascertain how he/she makes decisions, how he/she reacts spontaneously, what kind of common sense judgment he/she possesses. In short, voters want to like their candidates, especially the president. A portrayal forged through speech coverage alone does not illuminate the human side of the candidate. This is especially important to female voters, who have a better ability to assess character. So if Dole were permitted to be Dole, i.e., if the press were less obsessed with extraneous issues–tobacco, etc., eventually the real Bob Dole would emerge–who’s an incredibly likable, smart, savvy and, most importantly, common-sense guy with uncommon courage and convictions. Therefore and thereby mitigating the premise of your two-pronged question. The best message is an accurate presentation of a Dole presidency because that would provide his best chance of getting elected. It’s easy to envision a Dole presidency: a common-sense and consistent conservative philosophy would dictate policy. Conservatism today means elevating the individual to decision maker, removing government impediments to freedom and liberty, eliminating disincentives to risk-taking and job creating, re-empowering parents to fulfill their obligation and responsibility to their kids. These are abstract principles with real policy consequences. Campaigns and the media must quit looking for bumper sticker messages, political soundbites and silver bullets. Given Bill Clinton’s amazing “triangulation” two-step, it’s impossible to envision his second term. Though he has managed for the moment to shed his liberal image, he surely won’t dump his liberal staff (not to mention his spouse) and stay on his rightward track. Bob Dole is a reflection and product of the country’s values and philosophy. If Dole will just be Dole, the country will follow him to where they already are. Bob Bartley
11:11 a.m.  Monday  7/29/96

Stop reading public-opinion polls. That’s the best thing candidate Dole could do for himself. More important, stop listening to anyone who tells you the polls “prove” this or that. Don’t worry that they have you behind in August; they did the same favor for Ronald Reagan, and for that matter Bill Clinton. Even more important, don’t worry that they show “gaps;” that is, don’t campaign to assemble some pollster’s jig-saw puzzle coalition. Every poll starts with a false premise, “If the election were held today …” Presidential campaigns are a great national debate, and what counts is not what people believe before the debate but what they believe after. The public resoundingly answered this question in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1994. As I read those landslides, voters want a government that intrudes less on their personal lives, emphatically including their pocketbooks. Respect for received morality, as opposed to do-your-own thing relativism. A dignified national position in the world. And politicians who might conceivably try to do what they say they’re going to do. The time currently spent reading public opinion polls could be spent figuring out how to get in tune with those desires. Certainly this means tax cuts, designed to spur economic growth. My preference, to frame the political issue, is simply to repeal the Clinton and Bush tax increases (for details see Monday WSJ editorial, ” Dole and Taxes“). On the spending side, Republicans will need to counter cosmetic bows to the center by focusing on the Clinton vetoes, with or without a third veto of welfare reform. (see Paul Gigot’s ” Potomac Watch Friday“). Given the age issue, Mr. Dole faces a crucial choice on the vice presidency, and should concentrate on a seasoned choice who could credibly assume the presidency (see Friday’s ” For VP: A Grown-Up“). Mr. Dole and the rest of his party should not shrink from the debate on the 1980s. Though curbing deficits is helpful to the extent it’s done on the spending side, the centerpiece of economic policy should be growth. Above all, growth trumps “fairness,” and in any event “inequality” didn’t fall after the Clinton tax boosts, but jumped. The winning recipe for Republicans is to defend the Reagan record (against the editor of Slate and even, if it proves necessary, the moderator of this exchange). Herb Stein
12:53 p.m.  Monday  7/29/96

So far the disagreement among our panelists seems to be mainly about style and not much about policy. Matalin and Keating emphasize that Dole should demonstrate his genuine, likable personal qualities–honesty, not taking himself too seriously, willingness to do things the hard way, etc. I don’t suppose Bartley and DeMuth disagree with that, but they have a strong policy agenda that he should pursue. The question that arises is whether he can do both. Can he articulate a policy agenda in the degree of specificity that would distinguish him from Clinton without sounding like someone who has been remade at the last desperate moment by friends who have a policy agenda with which he has not been closely associated in all these years? This question arises most clearly with respect to taxes. Can he say, “The White House is well worth a dash of supply-side economics” and get away with it? Is Henry IV a good example? DeMuth and Bartley both want to do something about taxes but DeMuth seems rather reserved about emphasizing the pro-growth argument? Why is that? I can see that he does not want to set a numerical target for the growth rate, but doesn’t budgeting require some assumption about future growth, and won’t the growth consequences of tax changes have to be taken into account in making that assumption?