Four years ago, opinion polls showed George Bush's popularity heading south. Many in the Bush camp refused to panic or take corrective measures. They believed the president would pull out of his nose-dive and head back in the direction of his record-high approval ratings that followed the Gulf War.
What some believe could be "Bush-2"-the presidential campaign of Bob Dole-is facing a similar challenge. A Los Angeles Times survey reveals that a majority of Americans have already become disenchanted with the Republican Congress and have little enthusiasm for Dole. The survey shows President Clinton beating Sen. Dole, even with third-party candidates Ross Perot and Ralph Nader in the race. In a two-man contest, according to the survey, Mr. Clinton wins 55-37 percent. In a four-way race, the president wins with 45 percent to Mr. Dole's 32 percent. Mr. Perot gets 13 percent and Mr. Nader 6 percent.
What to do? Washington Post columnist Stephen Rosenfeld offers a formula. After hearing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher speak at William and Mary College recently, Mr. Rosenfeld wrote, "What struck me most from her speech and a chat was the unity of public statement and personal belief. This is a rare quality in a realm otherwise bulging with political hustlers, consensus politicians, and policy wonks. It is one of the core mysteries of leadership."
This is the only way Bob Dole can beat Bill Clinton without help from Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Mr. Dole must articulate firm beliefs and principles, not general ones, or he risks being overwhelmed by the slickest campaigner, promise-breaker, and fence-straddler in the history of modern politics.
Sen. Dole's April 19 speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors about the liberal judiciary was a good start, but he will have trouble with that issue because he has voted to confirm 182 of Clinton's 185 nominees to the federal bench. Mr. Dole says he did this "out of deference to a president's constitutional prerogative," a statement that glosses over the issue of principle. If most of the president's nominees were liberals, why didn't he oppose them on philosophical grounds, as many liberal Democrats have done with Republican nominees (remember Robert Bork)?
Mrs. Thatcher's "unity of public statement and personal belief" is a summons to the only person who may be able to rescue the Dole campaign: Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich must emerge from his reclusiveness and, no matter what the cost personally, speak truth to the nation. The Republican theme ought to be (and should have been) not a revolution but a second war of independence from the "monarchy" of big government, from victimization and dependence on government to individual freedom, accountability and prosperity. In such wars, combatants are sometimes wounded, even killed-including generals like the Speaker of the House. But wars of independence are bigger than individuals and personalities.
As The Weekly Standard put it, "It is time for Gingrich to come out from hiding and do what he has always done best: rally the faithful, articulate the agenda for his movement and his party, and help frame the national political conversation in a way that will clarify the stark choice facing the United States in November, 1996."
Mr. Gingrich isn't just Speaker of the House. He is, as the magazine put it, "the national political figure most associated with the ideas of the 'revolution' of 1994 and the governing agenda that has yet to be implemented, and it's going to take a far longer time than he may originally have thought at the height of the enthusiasm in early 1995."
If Speaker Gingrich burns out, if the press and his opponents scorch him beyond recognition, so be it. Others will rise up to take his place. Besides, isn't a comet a dying star? And when the comet streaks across the sky, isn't our attention diverted from Earth to the heavens? Don't we marvel?
Mr. Gingrich should go for it, almost as if he were running for president. He should articulate an intellectual and policy agenda about what a government united under Republican leadership would allow us to do for ourselves and our families.
If Mr. Gingrich leads and Mr. Dole loses, the yearning for independence will remain. If Mr. Gingrich doesn't lead and Mr. Dole loses, and if the House reverts to Democrat control, he and his ideas may never rise to such heights again. Of course, if Mr. Dole wins ... but can he without Mr. Gingrich and his independence manifesto alongside him? Six months before the election, it doesn't appear so.
© 1996, Los Angeles Times Syndicate