A clash of generations

August 26 1996

A clash of generations

August 26 1996

A clash of generations






If there was a defining moment at the Republican convention that set Bob Dole on the final lap of his quest for the American presidency last week, it may have come early on Wednesday evening. Dole’s wife, Elizabeth, had been given the task of telling the life story of her famously private husband. At a gathering that had already seen more than its share of treacly sentimentality, Elizabeth Dole pushed it one step further— striding confidently into the audience with a hand-held microphone, talk-show style, to introduce people who had played important roles in her husband’s past. There was the widow of the surgeon who repaired his body after it was shattered in the Second World War, and a nurse who helped him through his long and difficult recovery. The message, Elizabeth Dole said in case anyone watching had missed it, was that her husband has “been there. He’s been through pain and adversity.”

And so the Republicans adopted the techniques of Oprah to introduce voters to a candidate whose character was defined in the era of Glenn Miller. More important for a party whose contemporary rhetoric disdains Washington and all its deeds, they presented him not as the master government technician that he is, but as a plainspoken son of the Kansas prairie and a modest war hero whose dead right arm bears constant witness to his sacrifice. And they bathed themselves in the kinder, gentler light of openness and “inclusion.” The shrill voices of the party’s radical right were muted as the Republicans girded to fight President Bill Clinton and his Democrats for the centre ground of American politics on Nov. 5. By midweek, the phrase on every Republican lip was “Big Tent”—meaning the party should welcome a wide spectrum of views and not shut itself off from moderate voters. Those who disagreed were strongly counselled by the Republican hierarchy to keep their lips firmly zipped, and to a remarkable extent, they did.

For Dole, the convention in sunbaked San Diego, was the biggest opportunity to get his faltering campaign on track as the presidential race begins in earnest. For most of the summer, he had stumbled from one gaffe to another—clumsily suggesting at one point that tobacco is not addictive, then getting into a sour on-air fight with a popular television host. On the eve of the convention, he trailed Clinton by an average of 20 percentage points in opinion polls. By the end, with a feel-good meeting behind him and a popular choice for vice-president in former congressman Jack Kemp, Dole had cut that to 10 to 12 points, with just 11 weeks to go before voting day; indeed, one poll had cut the margin to two points. Still, Dole must beat heavy odds. For one thing, the Democrats meet next week in Chicago— giving them four clear days to win back lost ground.

Aside from style and tone, the Republicans made clear in

San Diego how they will appeal to voters. The heart of their message will be Dole’s promise to cut federal taxes by 15 per cent—a pledge symbolized by blue-and-white party lapel badges that simply say: “15.” The tax cut represents both a gamble and a conversion for Dole. For years, he had mocked the so-called supply-side theorists who argue that cutting taxes stimulates the economy and thus brings more revenue to the government. Instead, along with old-fashioned traditional Republicans, he had stressed the need to ^ restrain spending and balance the federal budget. His sur§ prise vice-presidential choice rammed home the new mes| sage. Kemp, the onetime quarterback, was one of the earli| est political converts to supply-side theory in the &lt mid-1970s, and helped to convert former president Ronald 1 Reagan to that approach. And with his political base in Buf1

falo, N.Y., and his long involvement in urban affairs, Kemp will also help the Republicans challenge the Democrats in heavily urban northeastern states where they find much of their core support.

Dole had to swallow hard before asking Kemp to run with him. The two men carried on a running duel for years that sometimes turned personal. Choice examples of their mutual antipathy were quickly unearthed, including Dole’s barb at one point that the wellcoiffed Kemp was “holding out for a [tax] deduction on hairspray,” and Kemp’s retort that “I love Bob Dole. I just hope that our party doesn’t come across sometimes as a bunch of grumpy old men.” For the moment, however, any grumpiness on either side was held carefully in check in the cause of salvaging a campaign that had looked like turning into a Republican wipeout in November. Rank-and-file party members were relieved. “Frankly, Kemp saved our ass—’scuse my language,” confided surgeon Grimes Byerly, an alternate delegate from North Carolina. “Till he came on board, we were going nowhere.”

To gain more ground on the Democrats, Republicans will have to continue to do what they managed so successfully in San Diego: muzzle the voices of their radical, fundamentalist wing. The party leadership wanted to exorcise the ghosts of the 1992 convention in Houston, where voters were left with a lasting impression of snarly hardline speakers like Pat Buchanan calling for a “cultural war” to restore traditional American values. In San Diego, Buchanan did not speak from the podium, and the party put forward speakers with an entirely different message—starting with retired general Colin Powell, who called the Republicans “the party of inclusion.” Even hardline Republicans who scare off many voters, such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, were presented in a warm and fuzzy

Dole reaches to the past to fight Bill Clinton

way. A video showed Gingrich sweating in the sun, helping to build a house under the Habitat for Humanity program—and in his speech he lamely attempted to humanize his message by making a bizarre connection between the emergence of beach volleyball as an Olympic sport and the principle of freedom. (His point was that no government bureaucrat would have invented beach volleyball.) Often the message was simply in the image itself: along with Powell, many black Republicans were front and centre, as were rising female stars like New Jersey’s tax-cutting governor, Christine Todd Whitman.

The problem was that the image often clashed with reality. Convention cameras focused disproportionately on black speakers and delegates, but only three per cent of delegates were black, and fully 18 per cent claimed a net worth of $1 million (U.S.) or more. More important, the party platform adopted early in the week includes hardline policies on such issues as abortion and immigration, reflecting the views of the radical and fundamentalist Christian forces that are so powerful among Republican activists. On the eve of the convention, leaders of the Christian Coalition were boasting openly of their influence in the party. Ralph Reed, the group’s baby-faced leader, described in detail how his troops had been prepared to ensure that their views triumphed on their key issue of outlawing all abortions, by mobilizing pro-life delegates through a sophisticated network of floor co-ordinators.

As it turned out, a floor fight was averted and the Christian forces were left on the sidelines. One morning last week, 2,000 of them gathered at an outdoor amphitheatre surrounded by palm trees and placards portraying bloody aborted fetuses. Several kilometres from the convention site, they indulged themselves in the kind of rhetoric that Republican leaders were desperate to keep off

the prime-time airwaves. Former vice-president Dan Quayle, one of their heroes, assured them that they should not fear being labelled extremist. “Know what?” he asked. “You aren’t extreme; you are mainstream America.”

Roger O’Dell, a convention delegate and Christian Coalition member from El Paso, Tex., tipped back the white cowboy hat with a “Life of the party” slogan on the band that shielded him from the hammering sun. “I don’t think we’ve been pushed aside,” he reflected. “Most of the people at the convention are with us. We own the convention. But here’s the deal: it took 30 or 35 years to move away from American values, and it’ll take a while longer to win the country back. So we can be patient.”

Another Christian activist, retired electrical engineer Meredith Raney of Florida, proudly sported a T-shirt bearing the uncompromising slogan “Intolerance is a beautiful thing.” On the back was the explanation: God is intolerant of evil; Lincoln was intolerant of slavery; and Churchill was intolerant of Hitler. “Thing is,” said Raney, “Christians are criticized for being intolerant in this party. But there’s a whole lot of intolerance in our history that we’re proud of. With abortion, we’re where we were at with slavery just before the Civil War. Some people thought it was bad, some people said it was OK. I hope we don’t need another civil war to resolve it, but we will win this fight for the unborn.” As for the Republicans’ efforts to keep the Christian right under wraps, Raney said: “I think it could cost them the election.

There’s a lot of Christians that won’t vote for Dole—and there’s an awful lot of us.”

In the coming weeks, it will be more difficult for the Republicans to still those voices. They may have been able to script a four-day convention, but Democrats will do their best to remind voters that Buchanan and Gingrich are louder voices in the Republican Party than are Powell and Whitman. Clinton has already moved his administration to the right on such crucial social issues as welfare reform to avoid giving any ground to the Republicans. That leaves the economy as the main field of debate. Republicans will push their 15-per-cent tax cut at every turn. Their argument is that average incomes have stagnated under Clinton, squeezing families even further at a time when the economy is supposed to be in full recovery. The Democrats will counter that Dole’s tax cut would send the deficit soaring, and plan to run an upbeat incumbent’s campaign that stresses the United States’ low rates of inflation (3.5 per cent) and unemployment (5.4 per cent).

Underlying it all will be something less tangible, but no less real: a head-on clash of generations. At 73, Dole would be the oldest man ever to be inaugurated as president. At 50, Clinton is the first baby boomer in the White House. The issue puts Dole on the defensive, looking too old and too slow. Last week, he tackled that impression directly, trying to turn his age from a liability to an asset. In his closing speech to the convention, he claimed a certain wisdom that comes as one of “the gracious compensations of age.” He appealed to voters as someone who can remember “a time of tranquillity, faith and confidence in action.” There was a sharper side, too. Within the Clinton administration, he said, there is “a corps of the elite who never grew up, never did anything real, never sacrificed, never suffered and never learned.”

Dole did not say, and did not need to say, that as far as he is concerned that corps is led by the President himself. For the biggest reminder of the gulf that divides the two men is the shattered right arm that Dole was once reluctant to talk much about. Now, the Republicans do not let a moment pass without reminding voters of the injury, caused by shrapnel while Dole was fighting German troops in 1945, and his determination to succeed despite it. The contrast with Clinton, who pulled strings to avoid serving in the military and sat out the Vietnam War at Oxford and Yale, could not be clearer. The question is whether an appeal based on old-fashioned ideals of service and duty can work in an age of instant gratification, and whether a big-band guy like Bob Dole can triumph in the era of MTV. □