Dole Defeats Chaos Barely

What the choice for Republicans came down to, finally, was Dole or chaos. What should alarm the Republicans was that it was a close call. By any normal standard, Bob Dole was limping by the time he reached South Carolina two weeks ago -- a loser to Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire and to Steve Forbes in Arizona and Delaware. It wasn't quite so dire a position as the pundits proclaimed, though, for the simple reason that, of all Dole's rivals, Forbes and Buchanan were utterly implausible as nominees. Wounded though he may have been, Dole had already managed to outlast the plausible alternatives -- the senators, governors and one-time cabinet members who were in the race not in order to make a point but because they were actually seeking the job. Dole's great good fortune was that they sought it neither wisely nor well.Arlen Specter pitched his campaign to liberal Republicans and found that they had already checked out of the party. Pete Wilson took a calculated risk that he could maintain the support of centrists while decorously bashing immigrants and affirmative action. Alas, there proved to be no market for a neo-Buchanan -- the nativist right was unimpressed, the centrists were appalled. Like Dole, Senator Richard Lugar played the experience card, though Dole clearly had him trumped there; unlike Dole, Lugar was unwilling to play along with the Christian right. It wasn't a great strategy: Lugar never achieved a distinct identity, but managed to accumulate enemies nonetheless. The most weighty of Dole's rivals, Phil Gramm, hitched his star to the Gingrich revolution; both flamed out before primary voting had even begun. By the time Dole reached New Hampshire, there was only one other candidate still in the hunt whom the Republicans could actually nominate. New Hampshire was Lamar Alexander's moment of opportunity -- with Buchanan looming over the party and Dole unable to string together more than six coherent syllables, Alexander had the chance to blast by Dole and become the Anti-Buchanan. With a track record among centrist voters and an ability to accommodate the Christian right, Alexander was the only candidate besides Dole who could unite the party, and he was better positioned to go up against Clinton in November. But the Great Plaid Hope wasn't up to it: with more cameras trained on him than he had ever seen or will ever see again, he proved every bit as insubstantial and dull as Dole himself. Having failed to push Dole aside in New Hampshire, Alexander then fell victim to both the calendar and Buchanan-phobia. With the primary season's shift to fast-forward requiring the immediate formation of a united front against Buchanan, Alexander would get no second chance. Before New Hampshire, such key figures as William Bennett and George Will were turning toward Lamar; after New Hampshire, the interest and endorsements abruptly ceased. His 15 minutes of presidentiality had come and gone. By South Carolina, then, the choice had come down to Dole, Forbes or Buchanan -- which, in a nutshell, is why Dole has won. To be sure, South Carolina is one of the few remaining states where a political organization can deliver votes, and deliver it did for Dole. But where else could the GOP turn? Buchanan was a uniquely polarizing figure, rejected in every poll by a majority of Republicans. Forbes had proven himself a one-note dufus of a candidate, who had managed in the course of his campaign to diminish support for the very cause -- the flat tax -- he was running to promote. To say that the alternative to Dole was either Buchanan or Forbes was to say that it was Dole or chaos. Moreover, the acceleration of the calendar did Dole one crucial additional favor: it made him all but invisible to the people who would have to vote for him. If there's one clear conclusion we can draw from the campaign to date, it's that Dole does better the less time he spends in a given state. In Iowa, which abuts his native Kansas and where he spent nine days campaigning in the 20 before the caucuses, Dole eked out a three-point victory over Buchanan. In New Hampshire, where he spent 10 days campaigning in the three weeks before the primary, Dole pulled down just 26 percent of the vote to Buchanan's 27 percent. By contrast, in the 10 states he swept on Junior Tuesday, Dole had been utterly absent from most of them during the run-up to the vote. No longer did the stuttering candidate actually have to appear before voters; it was simply the idea of Dole -- or, more precisely, of the Anti-Buchanan -- that voters were ratifying. This poses a challenge for Dole's managers come the general election. They have to send him someplace; the question is, where will he do the least damage? Ideally, Dole should be confined to very small states that will go Democratic in any event. District of Columbia, here we come! Before we utterly dismiss this year's Republican primaries, it must be noted that at least they've driven a stake through the heart of one of the most ludicrous and pernicious ideas in American political discourse. That was the idea, indignantly promoted by the Wall Street Journal editorial page for the last five years, that wages and middle-and working-class incomes were neither stagnating nor declining. The data showed, the Journal argued in scores of editorials and columns, that average income was actually climbing -- a conclusion they reached by averaging Steve Forbes' income and yours, and duly noting the aggregate increase. If Americans perversely insisted that times were tough, it was probably because Dick Gephardt and David Bonior had cast a spell on them. The Journal held out while one survey after another showed incomes declining, but with Pat Buchanan's assault on the income gap, and most particularly with Bob Dole feebly echoing Buchanan, they've finally thrown in the towel. The surrender came on March 8th, when their regular Friday editorial page columnist Paul Gigot realized that the Dole attack on Clinton was going to go after this wage stuff, and the Journal had better climb aboard.Over the last few years, Gigot wrote, "bondholders ... have done great. But wage earners, who need faster growth to see their lot improve, have mostly tread water. Mr. Clinton now wants the middle class to forget that his policies have put bondholders first." By any standard, Gigot's column is an immediate entrant in the chutzpah all of fame. When Clinton proposed his stimulus program in 1993 and his health program later that year, the Journal fiercely protested that these would boost the deficit and hurt bondholders, who are the creators of all wealth. When Clinton today attempts to raise the minimum wage, the Journal is adamantly opposed. But above all, the Journal has denied that wage earners were slipping behind bond-holders in nearly 100 separate editorial page articles over the past half-decade. Suddenly, they shift positions without acknowledging that they're making a shift, without acknowledging that this invalidates much of what they've written in recent years, and literally in the next sentence they place the blame on Clinton. Too many of Clinton's policies have benefited bondholders at the expense of wageholders, but invariably it has been the Journal and its friends that have leaned on Clinton the hardest to promote those policies. It's nice, I suppose, that the Journal has uncovered the scandal of wage inequity, but if they're looking for a culprit, all they need is a mirror.

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