Ed Rollins rains on Dole parade

Barring a major Clinton blunder, says the GOP master strategist, the newly energized Republican campaign is doomed for defeat

Published August 19, 1996 11:19AM (EDT)

The Dole-Kemp ticket continued to bounce enthusiastically along today, greeted by cheering crowds in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, and by polls showing that the presidential election may be a horse race after all. A Newsweek survey, published today, showed Dole pulling within two points of President Clinton. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said that Republican polls confirmed that the two were in a statistical "dead heat."

Are the GOP prospects as rosy as they now appear? We talked with Ed Rollins, one of the GOP's most successful -- and controversial -- campaign managers. Among his successes: the 1984 Reagan re-election campaign and the stunning, come-from-behind victory of Christine Todd Whitman in the New Jersey gubernatorial race in 1993. Rollins, who recently retired from active campaign work, is the author of the just-published "Bare Knuckles And Back Rooms: My Life In American Politics" (Broadway Books).

The Republicans certainly appear to be in much better shape than they were a week ago. Do you think Dole has a serious shot at taking the White House after all?

I think this is a guy who desperately wants to win the presidency. He's a man who feels there's a destiny involved in all of this. He's willing to make tough choices and he's become a better campaigner for it. But it's always hard to beat incumbents, especially when the people are not up in arms. And they are not in the way that they were in 1992 and 1994. If the election would have been two years ago, there'd have been no question, Bill Clinton would have been swept out wih every other Democrat. But he has since managed to position himself by saying, "I'm better than I was, and if you think I'm bad look at those guys."

I do think the race will close up somewhat, but I don't think in the final analysis, unless Clinton stumbles really badly, that there is anything Dole can do to beat him. Clinton has to stumble somewhere along the line, and that has not been a tendency, for him to make many mistakes.

If you were running Dole's campaign, what would you have him do?

Dole has to be convincing in every effort he makes day in and day out. He can not on any day create any doubt about either his running mate or his economic plan.

In other words, if there's one message that Dole and Kemp are going to hammer home every single stop of the way, it's gonna be the 15 percent tax cut.

Yes, but there's a cynical audience out there, so this is a high-risk strategy. Dole has to effectively argue that it will stimulate the economy and can still bring the deficit down. Clinton will obviously argue, "We tried that in the '80s and it didn't work."

But Dole didn't really have any choice but to go this high-risk route given his standing in the polls.

Yes, I think Dole had to do it to solidify his party. This is still Ronald Reagan's party, and the the economic package Dole adopted is clearly what the vast majority of activists in the party want. So he had no choice if he wanted to be a credible candidate. Picking Kemp was the second part of the equation; there's no better seller of the message than the architect of the tax-cut/supply-side message. Now Dole has to go after the independents and Democrats, but at least he doesn't have Republicans out there barking at him as they were three or four weeks ago.

You used the 30 percent tax cut to great effect in Christine Todd Whitman's campaign, which a lot of people are looking to as a model for Dole.

Yes, but she didn't want to buy into the tax cut. She was not a supply-sider. Finally, Steve Forbes said to her, "Listen, if you don't cut taxes and create incentives for businesses to move back into New Jersey, which is now the highest-taxed state in the country, you're not going to be able to govern." The reason I wanted it was there wasn't any difference between her and (Democratic governor Jim) Florio. The most important thing, which I think is what it does for Dole, too, is it gave her a message to go out every day and talk about. And so even though she didn't firmly believe it initially, it gave her something every day to stick to, a script, the same way Dole now has something that he has to debate for the next 12 weeks.

But can a tax cut campaign be waged the same way on a national level?

No, the situations are different. Florio was overconfident; he had such big leads going into the closing weeks and he pulled some very effective negative ads at the last minute. If he would have continued those ads, the likelihood is very high that she would not have won.

On the issue of negative advertising, how "bare-knuckled" will this campaign be?

I expect the rhetoric between the two campaigns not to be too severe, but I expect the commercials to be as negative and tough as ever. The images that voters are going to get is that they're both liars. I expect the commercials to be as negative as ever, maybe even more so. I think Clinton, as long as his lead holds out, will stay on the high road. Everything that'll come out of his mouth will be about his record and he'll ignore his opponent. If it gets down to where it's a four- or five-point race, then clearly his gloves will come off. If the race doesn't close up soon for Dole, the gloves will certainly come off for him. Kemp will never say a bad word about Bill Clinton, he's incapable of that. But Bob Dole is certainly more than capable of taking the gloves off and swinging.

In the final analysis, it will be who do you feel better about? If this race ends up being Bill Clinton the nice guy who's not too bad a president, vs. Bob Dole who's really a nasty guy, well it's an easy victory for Bill Clinton.

You ran Ross Perot's campaign, at least for a while, in 1992. Is he a factor this year?

He is not a viable candidate for president in this cycle. I think people now have a very negative impression of him. Where I think it may hurt Dole is that he will take away some of the anti-incumbent, anti-Clinton vote.

He's already started attacking Dole's tax plan.

If he decides to spend a hundred million dollars on television attacking the Republicans in Congress, attacking the supply-side premise of the tax cut, that will do very serious damage, because clearly Clinton's gonna do the same thing. Those combined resources will be very hard to break through.

Does he like Bob Dole any more than he liked George Bush?

I think he has an absolute disdain for Republicans. In his delusional mind he's become convinced that Republicans have this dirty tricks operation that destroyed his candidacy in 1992. The reality is, as I tried to explain to him, the stories that are coming out of CBS and the New York Times are being done by their reporters. They don't need some college graduate doing research at the RNC (Republican National Committee) to dig up this stuff, they're gonna go dig it up themselves. But he really had this paranoia about this group of ex-CIA types, he thought were working in the bowels of the RNC.

It's a very uphill struggle for Dole.

It's the most uphill struggle for a Republican since Goldwater. The Republicans are running Mondale's race in 1984 while the other side is running the Reagan campaign. They're even going to take the Ohio train trip right after the convention, which is exactly what we did in 1984.

How much effect could Jack Kemp have?

Kemp can reach into communities that no traditional Republican can. He's a message of hope. But in the final analysis, it won't make a dime's worth of difference. I mean, Dan Quayle proved that in 1988. If ever a guy was diminished as a candidate and should have dragged the ticket down, it was Quayle. But Bush won anyway. In Dole's case, the only factor where it helps just slightly is his age. When people sort of feel good about Kemp, they may feel better about Kemp and Dole.

How will the House and Senate look after the election?

If Clinton beats Dole by 10 to 12 points, which is what the private polls are showing today, then the House and Senate could go down. The key thing will be, are Republicans energized and will they vote? If they're turned off by the election, as they would have been three weeks ago, then the Republicans could lose everything.

At which point a lot of internal blood could flow.

A lot of bloodletting takes place, with both sides pointing fingers at the other. If, 12 weeks from now, Republicans say we would have been better off if Kemp would have been the head of the ticket, then Jack Kemp automatically goes first to the head of the line four years from now. If people say Jack Kemp turned out to be everything we thought he was, undisciplined, irrelevant, you know, a windbag, then I think the whole party is up for grabs. The moderates wing will try and use a Christie Whitman, or someone like Pete Wilson, and certainly several conservatives will try and run. There'll definitely be a moderate/conservative battle four years from now.

You were once a Kennedy Democrat. Have you thought of re-registering as a Democrat?

In my head I'm a Republican, and I'm comfortable there. In my soul there's still a lot of Democrat. I still think that, as I say in the book, there are no easy solutions. Thirty years in politics and government, I've seen the problems, but I've not seen the solutions. Welfare reform is a nice catchy phrase, but what do you do about the 3-year-olds, and what do you do about the 13, 14-year-olds in a shit school system and can't learn? You either do something with them or you deal with them in the criminal system. That's not acceptable to me at this point. I'm far more reflective about the future now that I have a child. It's not like in 20 years I'm gone, I don't have to worry about it. In 20 years, my daughter's in the system. As a political warrior I'm finished, but certainly not as a citizen.

Quote of the day

...or are you just pleased to see me?

"The zucchini throws off the juries."

-- A. Kirke Bartley, assistant district attorney in Queens County, N.Y., on why three separate juries have deadlocked on armed robbery charges against Carlos Diaz, who allegedly used an eight-inch zucchini wrapped in a paper bag to stick up a bartender in April 1995. (From "Would the Juries Have Convicted A Man Who Wielded an Eggplant?" in Monday's Wall Street Journal)

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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