Dole runs away from the dysfunctional House

The Republican contender's biggest problems begin at home

Published May 16, 1996 11:17AM (EDT)

One of the primary reasons Bob Dole resigned from his beloved Senate is to distance himself from the alarmingly unpopular Republican Congress. Why has the once formidable Republican "revolution" become a political liability?

We talked with Elizabeth Drew, whose latest book, "Showdown: The Struggle Between the Gingrich Congress and the Clinton White House" (Simon & Schuster) chronicles the rise and fall of Republican power since the 1994 election, and highlights the factors that have since led to the party's -- and its presidential standard bearer's -- growing woes.

The disarray in Republican ranks -- with Sen. Alfonse D'Amato publicly attacking Newt Gingrich -- in fact began in 1995, as your book shows, especially after the federal government shutdown. What role did Dole play in the split?

After winning the House for first time in 40 years, Gingrich set the agenda, largely with the Contract with America. He had all these press conferences in which it looked like Gingrich was leading Dole by the nose. But as Gingrich's ratings started to go down -- as did Dole's -- Dole said to some of his aides, "Look, I don't want so many pictures with this guy." At the end, Dole openly broke with Gingrich on the government shutdowns, which House Republicans enthusiastically supported after the budget talks failed. Dole thought the House leaders -- Gingrich, Dick Armey, Tom DeLay and others -- were talking to themselves, engaging in what he called "in-speak," and they were not in touch with the country and how unpopular the shutdown was.

How bad is the Republican split now?

It's worse. A lot of House Republicans are worried that if Dole doesn't get it together and have a clear agenda -- which he does not as we speak -- he could jeopardize Republican control of the House. For one thing, they like being in the majority, chairing committees and subcommittees, having bigger staffs and larger offices. And they want to nail down what they call the "realignment." They watched the Democrats do that for a long time, through incumbency. If the House does not remain in Republican hands after November, then the Republican "revolution" will have been just a flash in the pan. But if they get another two years, then they can dig in and accrue more power. So this is a real important election to them -- much more important than Dole being elected.

For the Dole people, it's the other way around. They feel that the "extreme" Republican House -- one of Clinton's greatest achievements was to paint them this way -- jeopardizes his election because the Congress has itself become a campaign issue. So you have all this turmoil, with the Republicans acting like Democrats, who are very good at internecine warfare.

How did the Republican Congress manage to turn itself into perhaps the main campaign issue?

It started right after the '94 election when they decided to interpret the election as a mandate for everything they ever wanted. At one point, Gingrich said, "I want to repeal the New Deal." There were reams and reams of legislation rolling back all sorts of things. The environmental area is the one where Gingrichites really made a mistake. They think so too now. But politicians never see the substantive problem, they think it was just a question of not getting their message across -- which is always how they put it. So they got themselves pretty far out of line with mainstream American public thinking.

Looking back, perhaps it would have been better for Dole if he, rather than Gingrich, had been negotiating with Clinton on the budget.

Oddly, you had the year beginning with Clinton believing he could do business with Gingrich through back channels, but he thought he couldn't do business with Dole because Dole had a prickly personality -- and after all, Dole was after his job. In the end, Dole and Clinton both felt that if they could have cleared the room of everybody else, they could have made a deal. And they probably could have -- they are both deal makers. This doesn't mean that they became buddies, but Clinton saw Dole as a much more reasonable person, as someone he could work with, while Dole came away from the White House with a much higher respect for Clinton's political abilities -- thinking he's one slippery fellow. That very much affects the byplay this year.

Has Dole been psyched out by the experience? Here's a "master of the legislative process," a smart politician in his own right, who has stumbled from one miscalculation to the next.

Dole is out of his depth in dealing with Clinton on issues at a certain level. He is a legislative master, playing an inside game through subcommittees, unanimous consent. But he hasn't been particularly interested in issues per se. He was bored to tears in the budget talks when Clinton and Gingrich would go on and on with their wonk talk. And he still hasn't learned how to talk to the public at large; how to say things that move them, how to get out of process talk and into things that mean more. There are differences between him and Clinton on the role of government. Though for Dole, it will have to be part of something larger. He's working at it, and I don't rule out that he can do it. I also think that if a person can't do it, then he probably wouldn't make a very good president.

Can Bob Dole run away from the GOP Congress? Join the conversation in Table Talk.

Quote of the day

Beyond the blue horizon

"It's like when Cortez burned his ships when he went to Mexico. It sends a pretty clear message: victory or death."

-- Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., on former presidential rival Bob Dole's decision to resign from the Senate.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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