SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Can Bob Dole's campaign be saved?

By Salon Staff

Published April 25, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

A week is a long time in politics, the cliche goes, and that may be one of the few verities getting Bob Dole through these rather grim days. Despite attempts of some inside-the-Beltway pundits, like Newsweek's Joe Klein, to shape the November election as one between Dole the heroic adult vs. Clinton the promiscuous child, voters do not seem to be buying.

Twenty points behind the President in the polls, facing a yawning gender chasm with women voters, continually outfoxed in legislative maneuvering by Democrats and the White House, Dole's "one last mission" is shaping up as a defeat of colossal proportions.

We asked a conservative insider and two of the shrewder political analysts if things were really that bad for the long-time Senate Majority Leader. In a word, the answer seems to be "yes."

"The campaign is obviously in trouble. Dole has major, major problems. Doing something that no candidate has pulled off before in this century -- running for President from a senior leadership post in the Senate is hard enough. Worse, Bob Dole hasn't been big on the all-important vision thing for a long, long time. It's not what he does. Plus, he has the added problem of being handcuffed to the spotted Newts in Congress.

-- Kevin Phillips, conservative commentator and author most recently of "Arrogant Capital" (Little, Brown)

"He's clearly not on track. He's going to have to do a better job in the weeks ahead putting together a coherent vision. The country is far more conservative than Bill Clinton, who is vulnerable in areas like tax relief for families, English as the official language, educational choice, the sanctity of human life. But he won't lose by accident. Clinton is campaigning every day and doing polling every night. So you can't run a traditional campaign against him, like waiting until after Labor Day and hoping you can move large blocs of people in a couple of months.

There's some exaggeration of how big Sen. Dole's problems are and he should be given a little more time, but he has to move to highlight some of these key differences with President Clinton. Meanwhile, I would advise my friends to make their criticisms and suggestions privately rather than air their dirty linen in public right now."

--Gary Bauer, former Reagan White House aide and president of the Family Research Council

"Bob Dole thinks and acts like a Senate majority ought to, but that's not the same as a president or a presidential candidate ought to. He's still constantly seeking compromises and votes here and there. If you've gone to work for30 years thinking in legislative terms, that becomes the mindset. But these are not sweeping, presidential thoughts. For Dole to shift gears to project a different kind of leadership is a major change for him. The question is, can you flip the switch that quickly?
I doubt it."

-- Doug Bailey, publisher of The Hotline: The Daily Briefing on American Politics, a political newsletter widely read on Capitol Hill.

"What can Dole do? Very little. Voters who are undecided now will decide on the basis of whether they dislike Clinton enough in November to vote for Dole -- and that just won't work for Dole. When this 20 percent or so start thinking about it in September or October, they'll find Clinton is really not that bad; in fact, he's quite good. The economy is on the upswing, the gender thing is going for him, and I just can't see why anyone under 40 would want to vote for a candidate who is 73. Age is the great unspoken issue in this election, but it is the one that as much as anything else will wind up biting Dole on the ass. The only thing Dole has going for him is "experience" and "judgment," whereas Clinton is all over the map. But Dole has no message going for him. And if he develops one that seems to work, Clinton will probably just take it."

-- Rollin Post, political reporter, KRON-TV, San Francisco.

Middle East poker

New York Times correspondent Judith Miller discusses how Syria's Assad is playing the terrorism card

One step forward, another one back. The PLO, after 32 years, formally renounces its pledge to destroy the state of Israel. But the United States, in the face of Syrian snubs and seeming indifference, ponders whether to stop trying to mediate an end to the current face-off between Israel and Hezbollah. Andrew Ross talked to Judith Miller, a correspondent for the New York Times and author of "God Has Ninety-Nine Names: Reporting From A Militant Middle East" (Simon & Schuster), about the latest developments in the region.

Shimon Peres called the PLO vote "ideologically .... the most important change in the last 100 years." Is it that big a deal?

It does matter. As a symbol, it says that the war between the sole, legitimate spokesman for the Palestinian people and the state of Israel is officially over. And it's important practically, because it is something that Arafat agreed to do as part of the Oslo peace accords. If he hadn't done it, there is no doubt that the peace process would have come to a grinding halt.

A lot of analysts have been writing obituaries for the peace process, in the wake of the suicide bombings in Israel, and the war of the rockets between Israel and Hezbollah.

The peace process has had a shock. But most people in the region understand that there is a very unhealthy dose of pre-Israeli election maneuvering going on here -- on lots of people's parts. Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, each with its own agenda, are each trying to affect the outcome of that contest within Israel. I hate to say this when so many civilians -- as usual in the Middle East -- are dying, but it's a very cynical game being played. One that we've seen before, and one alas that we'll see again.

Including America, which would like to see Shimon Peres elected.

Of course. That's why Bill Clinton reacted as cautiously as he did to the bombing of the civilian targets of Lebanon. Before the bombing, the Israelis gave the Americans a week to negotiate a strengthening of the ground rules about what each side could do in the security zone and southern Lebanon. The Americans came back empty-handed. It was only at that point that the Israelis retaliated, knowing full well that it had given the Americans the opportunity of settling this thing before a shot was fired. Those two factors are really important in explaining America's rather muted reaction to what is going on.

Warren Christopher is going back and forth to Damascus, getting snubbed. But we've all been told that Syria is gearing up for peace. So what game is Hafez al-Assad playing? Is he, or is he not going to get on the peace train?

Assad's main goal is to stay in power, and keep his minority Alawite regime afloat. Does peace help him achieve that, or hurt his ability to do that? My sense is that for Assad to open up the country suddenly to Israeli economic, cultural and political penetration -- in other words the kind of normal relations Israel is insisting upon to give back the strategic Golan Heights -- is a prescription for suicide. Assad knows it. What he needs is absolutely every square inch of lost territory back -- more than what everyone else has gotten in order to take this risk.

What does he want in Lebanon?

Lebanon is Assad's financial lung; it's how all the black market goods come into Syria. Syria needs it to survive economically, at least until its own oil reserves come on line in a big way. So Assad needs Israeli acquiescence to continued Syrian hegemony there. The Israelis have no problem with that whatsoever, given their own searing experience in Lebanon.

For two weeks, Israel has launched countless "surgical strikes" at Hezbollah positions but it hasn't stopped them from hurling Katyusha rockets into northern Israel. How do they do keep doing that?

I've heard from very reliable intelligence sources that Syria has resupplied Hezbollah with some 400 Katyushas in the past week. This will go on, at least until Assad considers it in his interest to settle it.

And when might that be?

If he gets all of the above, he can probably slowly agree to phase in a peace treaty with Israel. But is it really what he wants? No. The best scenario from his standpoint is: the Communists are reelected in Russia; a re-formed Soviet Union is once more a factor that he can use to play off America, as he did before. The Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian peace falls apart so that his patience at having waited and attacked the treaty relentlessly is seen as a "wise analysis" of the situation. And Assad doesn't have to have peace; he can live without the Golan, he's lived without it for a long time. But if he senses that his dream scenario isn't real, then he's got no choice but to make peace. And that's what he's been slowly and methodically in his inimitable fashion been preparing his population for.

So Assad allows various terrorist groups to operate in Damascus because he sees them as tools to undermine a peace process he doesn't much care for.

It's another card; it's something else he can trade in. And the groups know it. Hezbollah and the others have been preparing for the day when Assad decides that they are disposable. He won't give it a second thought.

What future do these groups -- Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, Hamas -- have?

To be a player in the Mideast terrorist scene, you really need a border with Israel, to be close to the battlefront. Look how the PLO fell apart when it moved to Tunis -- which was precisely Israel's goal. It's going to be hard for these groups if they can't operate any longer out of Lebanon, or Syria or Jordan. They would have to move to Iran or, perish the thought, Sudan, where it's hard even to get a fax out. So, they are likely to become even more marginal than they already are.

But here is one of those luscious Middle East contradictions: Hamas may very well determine Israel's election, which is not a marginal factor in the peace process. If I were Hamas my most fervent desire would be for one more large impact explosion that would torpedo the election of Shimon Peres. Make no mistake about it: that is their goal. They know how to play election politics. They can't affect Yasser Arafat, but they can affect Israel, and that's the game.

Quote of the day

I really live with the nightmare of an asteroid impact. Maybe I'm the only person who's actually kept awake worrying about it, but we don't have forever to build a shield for ourselves.

-- Astronomer Dr. Tom Gehrels of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, on calculations by European mathematicians that an asteroid named 433 Eros has a good chance of smashing into the Earth sometime within the next 1.14 million years.

Salon Staff

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