How do you cook up laws and roast each other at the same time? Dole and Clinton are about to show what happens when the campaign comes to Washington
By Richard Stengel
(TIME, March 25) -- Biologists call it symbiosis: the living together in more or less intimate association of different, sometimes hostile species in which each exploits the other to its own maximum advantage. In rare cases, such as parasitic wasps, creatures use each other for survival before one destroys the other. This is not unlike the current political morphology involving the genus Presidentum Candidatus, with those two familiar species, Robert Dole, Republican challenger, and Bill Clinton, Democratic incumbent.
Washington, as any biologist will tell you, is crueler than nature, and for the next few months rivals Clinton and Dole will find themselves in more or less intimate association, mutually dependent but wholeheartedly trying to annihilate each other.
For the next few months, the presidential campaign has shifted from the green fields of the Republic to the hard pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue. Forbes has folded, and Pat Buchanan remains on the hustings, a distant and noisy drummer. The scenario presents a curious and unique situation in American history, a Senate majority leader and a President, opposing candidates in a general election, who must work out some modus operandi while trying to knife each other in the back. (The only sitting Republican Senator--not even a majority leader--elected President in this century was Warren Harding. His slogan: "Return to Normalcy.") For the next few months, voters will be able to observe a complex, multilevel game in which Dole and Clinton will be constantly analyzing who is hurt or helped by different legislative strategies. At this point, neither knows what the other is going to do. "I get mixed signals," says Dole. "Some say he really wants to get things done. Others say he could care less." Clinton's camp is waiting for Dole to make the first move.
When Bob Dole decided to run for President, a small voice inside him, the voice of the Depression kid from hardscrabble Russell, Kansas, said, "Bob, don't quit your day job." And he didn't. Flying back to Washington last week on his campaign plane after wrapping up the nomination fight, Dole confided that he was "anxious to get back to work." Back to work? In other words, Dole was done moonlighting as a Republican primary candidate and now wanted to return to his real work, the job he knows and loves and does better than anyone else.
Last week, sitting in what is probably his favorite spot in the world--the narrow balcony between his office and the Senate floor, a place where no voters can pester him, where no one can ask him why he lacks vision--Dole turned his perpetually tanned face to the late winter sun and did what comes naturally: he talked shop. From his lap he plucked a neatly folded piece of paper and ticked off a list of bills. Farm bill. "Have to do that." Line-item veto. "That's something they [the Democrats] want." Small-business regulatory reform. "That's bipartisan. That will pass, probably 90 to 6." And on and on down the list: health-care insurance, term limits, campaign-finance reform and a balanced budget. Pure Dole, so comfortable with legislative jargon, so uncomfortable with campaign rhetoric: "When we leave here for the convention, if we've got a pretty good list of things we've passed, the President can veto them but we can make our case." You want vision? Bob Dole has found his vision: a legislative to do list. No one can check off items like Dole. Remember George Bush, also vision challenged, who said, "Message: I care." Dole's version: "Message: I do."
Dole knows he's a better legislator than campaigner, so his strategy is to campaign by legislating. His frequent refrain--"I'm a doer, not a talker"--can be demonstrated only by actually passing legislation. Unlike Newt Gingrich, who plots grand, overarching designs, Dole takes things as they come up, picking allies and sizing up enemies as necessary. It's as though he thinks it's bad luck to plan ahead. The Dole strategy is to depict himself as the driving force of change while portraying Clinton as the defender of the status quo: Senator Change vs. President Veto. Don Sipple, Dole's top strategist, sums it up this way: "We've got an agenda for change. The only question is whether Clinton gets on board or stands in the way."
But Dole's path is a dangerous one. In his perfect legislative world, he could calibrate bills so cleverly, pack them so guilefully, that he would look good if Clinton signed and Clinton would look bad if he didn't. (Imagine Bill's Dilemma: Will it hurt me with my liberal base if I sign it? Will it poison me with Perot voters if I don't?) But Dole's world is changed now. He must reckon with a possibly uncooperative House, led by fractious freshmen who suspect Dole of selling out and last week pleaded with Dick Armey to be their champion. He must deal with the dogged Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, and the filibustering Democrats doing their damnedest to obstruct and water down any legislation.
Then there's the larger question. In a time when many voters love to hate Washington, do you benefit from showing your skills as Beltway Bob? Dole has to wonder: Will cooperating with Clinton make me look weak, like a junior President? And just how do you make a complex legislative agenda sound like a coherent message? Especially when the candidate is more comfortable talking about continuing resolutions and getting a bill out of committee than painting a glowing picture of a rising America. The problem for Dole is that passing legislation during a presidential campaign is not about the fine print--it's about winning the battle of perception.
Dole's strategy has another potential flaw. On the campaign trail, Dole has been scoring points with lines like this: "We sent the President a balanced budget. He vetoed it. We sent him tax cuts for families with children. Veto. We sent him welfare reform. Veto." But what happens to the Dole strategy when Clinton starts signing on the dotted line? A Dole campaign aide inadvertently points this out while trying to prop up his candidate. "[Dole] complains that Clinton is against welfare reform and against a balanced budget," says the aide. "If we had deals on each of those issues, he wouldn't be saying that." But Dole is counting on the desire of moderate lawmakers to get something done in an election year, and the goodwill of voters who will see that Dole is trying to do just that. The path is tricky, but consider the alternative: campaigning. "We don't have any money," laments a Dole aide.
History shows that the White House has natural advantages. Take this past week. The President was making peace and photo ops in a Middle East desert, while the nominee was specifying how to ease the Social Security earnings test. The beauty of incumbency is that the President can sit back and wait. In the current political firmament, Dole proposes, Clinton disposes. And in so doing, Dole could even force Clinton to show something like consistency. The President the Dole campaign accuses of "talking right and governing left" could become the President who really does, finally, end welfare as we know it. The President also has the luxury of depicting himself as a man of accomplishment if he signs a bill and as a fighter against extremism if he vetoes it.
Clinton aides believe that the President ultimately wins in the public mind if the government appears to be functioning. Signing will be his strategy, starting with a welfare-reform bill close to the version being proposed by a seven-member executive committee of the National Governors' Association. Clinton's veto of the Republican bill he once described as draconian has yielded changes in his favor. The Governors provided $4 billion more in child-care funding than the congressional conference report recommended.
The same strategy goes for the line-item veto. So what if it was part of the Contract with America? Clinton wants it. The Republicans can moan when he uses it and moan when he doesn't. At best, Clinton will have it for one appropriations cycle before the election, and he can use it to reject programs he will describe as extremist.
As President, Clinton also has the advantage of being able to step away from any imbroglios and take his show on the road, where he still has $26 million to spend. While Dole is dealing with the nitty-gritty of getting bills to the floor, Clinton can float above it by making crowd-pleasing speeches about "values" like protecting the environment, discouraging smoking, instituting the V chip and wearing school uniforms. Like Ronald Reagan in 1984, he can even campaign against Washington. Already Clinton is airing ads in which he talks about the need "to cherish our children and strengthen America's families." Can't argue with that. And talk about Alice in Wonderland logic and appropriating Republican themes: the Democratic National Committee is running an ad about welfare that might have been written by Reagan. "Families destroyed. Children's dreams lost," says the narrator. "No work, no welfare--rescue children from the destructive welfare system." Bob Dole, phone home.
As the early Clinton ads suggest, Clinton is already where Dole needs to be. It was Nixon's commonplace advice to run to the right in the primaries, then back to the left in the general election. But Clinton is already staking his claim to that voter-rich region, and to the issues that were once the domain of Republicans. This week the man who proclaimed in the State of the Union address that "the era of Big Government is over" will release his 1997 budget and call for a balanced budget, which has basically been Dole's main theme on the trail. "Dole's big problem," says Republican strategist Ed Rollins, "is that the only issues he owns are ones that are not attractive for a fall campaign: abortion and deficit reduction."
Republicans on the Hill see the writing on the wall. They are no longer talking about tying the debt limit to pet causes. They don't want another train wreck. And despite all the odds, voters may be surprised to see that legislation gets passed and signed during this symbiotic presidential season. "I think it helps us both," says Dole, hopefully. Perhaps voters will decide Washington isn't such a terrible place after all. In the end they might just opt for the Pennsylvania Avenue Dream Ticket: Clinton-Dole. With Dole doing, Clinton signing and both of them taking credit, why make a change at all? --Reported by Michael Duffy, J.F.O. McAllister and Karen Tumulty/Washington
More TIME This Week
AllPolitics home page|
Copyright © 1996 AllPolitics