Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Advantage Dole?

James Skillen


June 10, 1996

Bob Dole leaves the Senate this week to devote himself to his presidential campaign. Nothing else will compete for his energy. At the same time, it looks like the convictions in Arkansas could drag President Clinton down in Whitewater's undertow. He may not escape with his presidency, much less his campaign, intact. Not a bad week for Dole.

Not only does the president look corrupt by association, but after three and a half years in office he also appears less and less definable as president. What has he done, after all? Does he really lead the Democratic Party, or is he simply a scout running point to check for electoral land mines? With his approval ratings up, some congressional Democrats have edged closer to him, but few of them stand with him wholeheartedly.

Welfare reform is still mostly talk for Clinton. As is a balanced budget in seven years. Then there are his many recent statements suggesting he is closer to Republican conservatives on issues of family, crime, and teen curfews. But how do those statements square with his actions, such as his veto of the bipartisan bill banning partialbirth abortions? The fact is that Bill Clinton has neither galvanized the Democratic Party for concerted action nor proven himself a trustworthy leader. Regardless of his slipperiness, however, the Democratic Party has little ability to discipline the president or to chart the party's course.

So all this makes Bob Dole the clear choice for president, right? Think again. Story after story of Dole's leadership in the Senate shows him to be highly pragmatic and lacking a coherent agenda. He kept his distance from the more radical conservatives until they gained control of the House, and since then he has tried both to claim their cause and to keep them from succeeding on their own terms. At this moment, Dole is no more the trusted champion of all Republicans than Clinton is of the Democrats. And given Dole's unsuccessful legislative strategy during his last month as Senate majority leader, his departure now looks more like an escape from trouble than the first step on his grand march to victory.

But that's unfair, you counter. Dole may not have much charisma, but our responsibility as citizens is to pick the best (or the least evil) candidate, not to grumble about what's missing.

That reaction misses the point, however. Of course, those who vote on election day will have to choose from among the listed candidates. But the tragedy is that more and more citizens are quite prepared to skip that day of decision. They have already voted for cynicism because of distrust or disgust. They'll never make it to the polls on election day, and, in their minds, it won't matter. If the best the system can offer is Clinton and Dole, then something's wrong with the system and they don't want to be part of it. That's why Ross Perot's Reform Party is alive and kicking even though its members don't want Perot to be their presidential candidate.

Dole may gain some temporary advantage now, but that says very little. The present system will allow both candidates to continue to get away with cheap talk and inconsistent action because most people are not listening and those who are listening no longer expect much.

The warning lights are blinking. Unless we get to the root of our electoral and governing breakdown, we citizens are the ones who will drown in Whitewater or end up standing with Dole outside Congress, with no clear idea of where we are headed.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”