Commentary: How Dole Could Dig Himself Out

Woe is Bob Dole. Throughout his campaign, he had been sure of one thing: The economic issue was going to be Bill Clinton's undoing.

It sure hasn't worked out that way. Voters who think the economy is improving--a number that has grown from 22% to 52% since January--are backing President Clinton by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. Yet anxious voters who worry about losing their jobs or their kids' future standards of living also are going Democratic in droves.

What's a candidate to do? So far, the Republican nominee has alternated between playing Santa Claus and Chicken Little. One minute, he's promising tax cuts few Americans believe they'll get. The next, he's grousing about an economy "in the tank." That's not a winning combination for running against a President boasting of peace and prosperity.

SPECIFICS. There is a better way. But first, Dole must face facts. Unlike 1992, economic anxiety is no silver bullet. Indeed, most restive Americans prefer Clinton's prescriptions for what ails them: boosting education aid, job retraining programs, raising the minimum wage.

Dole's magic formula of tax cuts, regulatory relief, and leadership looks Reaganesque. But it's sure not getting the response the Gipper did. An ABC News/Washington Post poll of 1,020 registered voters finds that only 26% of Americans think Dole can reduce the deficit while cutting taxes. "The public has become cynical about politicians and taxes," concedes Dole adviser Lyn Nofziger. "Bush made a promise and lied. Clinton made a promise and lied."

Dole could start by convincing voters that he's not lying, too. During his 35 years in Congress, he built a reputation as an unflinching deficit hawk. He has squandered a career of credibility by embracing $548 billion in supply-side tax cuts without saying how he will balance the budget. So Dole must be forthcoming about what programs he will cut and how he will reshape costly entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security. His ill-advised advisers have thus far persuaded him to "vague out."

Of course, Dole could also capitalize on moral issues and Clinton White House sleaze, topics on which he holds a commanding edge in the polls. But even if Dole believes that economic issues must "remain central" to his strategy, as one senior adviser insists, there are economic windows of opportunity. Dole needs to convince some already optimistic voters that they'd do even better with him in the White House. His capital-gains cut and estate-tax relief could entice the relatively well-heeled--if they believe him.

NO SALE. He also should focus on the 23% of voters who say their family is faring about the same since Clinton took office--a group that favors the President over Dole, 46% to 39%. These "treadmill" voters are less concerned about losing their jobs than with staying even amid record tax burdens and hefty mortgages. A 15% income-tax cut could mean thousands of dollars to them. Yet Dole hasn't closed the sale. "If the Dole plan is communicated, people will vote for it," says Stanford University economist John B. Taylor, Dole's top economic adviser.

It's the only alternative for Dole. A lifetime supporter of Big Business, he's unlikely to pick up a populist pitchfork and begin spouting anticorporate rhetoric anytime soon. But if Detail Man Dole convinces voters he'll balance the budget, he could transform a potential Clinton landslide into a competitive race.

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