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.