Romney’s Bob Dole blueprint

If Mitt picks Paul Ryan as his V.P., he’ll be travelling down the same road as his GOP colleague 16 years ago

Topics: Opening Shot,

Mitt Romney is approaching his party’s convention in far better political shape than the last Republican to challenge a Democratic president. But there is a parallel between the dilemma he now faces and the one Bob Dole confronted before the GOP’s 1996 convention. And as he mulls his running-mate options, it suddenly seems possible that Romney will go down the same road Dole did.

Let’s start with what Romney has in common with the ’96 summer Dole: He managed to secure the GOP nomination despite engendering little enthusiasm (and plenty of skepticism) from the party base; he’s essentially running on the message, “I’m not the other guy”; and he’s trailing in the polls.

Granted, Dole wasn’t just trailing Bill Clinton at this point – he was getting clobbered, generally by a margin in the high-teens, sometimes even more than 20 points. He was clearly a serious general election underdog, but the political world hadn’t yet written him off. After all, it had been less than two years since the 1994 Republican Revolution, and the thoroughness of Clinton’s recovery hadn’t fully sunk in. Plenty of Republicans still believed they could beat the president – if only, they told themselves, Dole would run a “real” Republican campaign.

This meant embracing a specific, dramatic and purely conservative policy agenda and backing it up with a bold running-mate who would inspire the party base and capture the attention of the broader public.

“Dole’s got to do something that creates a little excitement in the party right now,” Lyn Nofziger, a longtime Ronald Reagan aide, said that summer, “because the thing that’s killing Dole now is that there ain’t none.”

Dole opted to heed these calls and made two major moves in the run-up to the mid-August San Diego convention.

The first was to rebrand himself as a supply-side enthusiast, abandoning the fiscally stingy Eisenhower Republicanism that had defined much of his Senate career and making peace with a wing of the GOP he’d long disparaged.  “The good news,” Dole had joked during the Reagan years, “is that a bus full of supply-siders went off a cliff. The bad news is that a couple of seats were empty.”

The supply-side crowd had long had it in for Dole, too. But now Dole embraced their agenda in full, unveiling a $540 billion plan to cut income tax rates 15 percent across the board and to slash the capital gains rate in half, with a promise that the resulting growth would lead to a balanced budget in six years.

A week later, Dole made his second move: a surprise V.P. pick – Jack Kemp, a godfather of the supply-side movement and an old Dole nemesis. (Back in the ‘80s, Kemp had quipped that Dole “never met a tax he didn’t hike.”) Kemp had been an early favorite for the ’96 presidential nomination, but had declined to enter the race. The choice affirmed Dole’s sudden commitment to right-wing economics. It also generated some extra media buzz because of the unusually high profile of Kemp, a former NFL quarterback who’d won favorable press coverage for his efforts to broaden the GOP’s appeal to minority voters.

In making his candidacy a celebration of conservative economics, Dole hoped to please and motivate the GOP base – and, at least initially, he seemed to – while also giving swing voters a Big Idea to rally around (and reigniting their backlash against Clinton’s 1993 tax hike).

On this second front, though, Dole never got any traction. Partly, this was a simple function of the economy; voters were feeling better about the country’s direction and felt no reason to throw Clinton out. But his supply-side embrace also exposed him to devastating attacks from Clinton and other Democrats, who were free to point out that his numbers didn’t add up and that his plan would blow a massive hole in the deficit.  A “risky tax scheme” is the language they settled on to shred Dole’s plan, and their attacks coupled with the skepticism of the political media and economic experts led nearly 70 percent of voters to tell pollsters they didn’t think it was possible to slash taxes rates and the deficit simultaneously.

In the end, Dole’s embrace of the right’s economic vision proved to be an albatross, one that damaged his credibility (because of his past supply-side skepticism) and gave Democrats an easy weapon. It’s not the reason he lost – you can thank the economy for that – but it sure didn’t help.

What does this have to do with Romney? Well, maybe nothing. For now, Romney is still mainly running on an “I’m not the other guy” message. But his party is getting frustrated, because he’s running behind Barack Obama, and there are hints that the gap may be worsening. This is unacceptable to Republicans, who believe Romney should be leading, given the lousy state of the economy. And as with Dole 16 years ago, they’re now turning up the heat on their presumptive nominee to make their specific policy agenda the centerpiece of his fall campaign.

This is the backdrop for the growing calls from the right for Romney to choose Rep. Paul Ryan as his running-mate. The Wisconsin Republican is the author of a budget plan that serves as the Holy Grail of Tea Party-era conservatism. Where Romney is tolerated by the right, Ryan is beloved. The case for going with Romney is essentially the same as the case for Dole embracing supply-side and teaming up with Kemp back in ’96 – reassure and motivate a party base that’s apprehensive and suspicious and wake up the rest of the country by running on a Big Idea with a “bold” running-mate.

“Personalities aside,” read a recent Wall Street Journal editorial that made the case for Ryan’s selection, “the larger strategic point is that Mr. Romney’s best chance for victory is to make this a big election over big issues. Mr. Obama and the Democrats want to make this a small election over small things—Mitt’s taxes, his wealth, Bain Capital. As the last two months have shown, Mr. Romney will lose that kind of election.”

Of course, as with Dole and supply-side, this is a move Democrats are dying for Romney to make. Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program provided them with priceless material last year, and they’re already at work tying his budget blueprint – which would necessitate deep cuts in the social safety net and produce “the largest redistribution of income from the bottom to the top in modern U.S. history” – to every Republican on the ballot this fall. For Romney to voluntarily build his general election effort around that plan would be a dream come true for Democratic ad makers.

There are indications that Romney is seriously mulling Ryan as a No. 2, although his V.P. search has been unusually opaque, so it’s hard to tell what exactly is going on. But the fact that so many conservatives are making so much noise on Ryan’s behalf speaks to an uncomfortable reality for Romney: As the summer winds down and the conventions approach, he’s not where he wanted to be in this race. And it might just lead him to make a decision that will hurt him in November.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>