Poor Bob Dole. He’s not a bad guy, has been a fine American and a good Senate Majority Leader. But unlike Bill Clinton, who deeply wanted to be President not just because it’s the top prize, but because he so strongly believed in the importance of education and universal health insurance and reinventing government and fixing welfare and equal rights and on and on . . . Clinton is the ultimate, passionate public policy wonk . . . Bob Dole is, by contrast, just sort of going through the motions.

It’s Jack Kemp (don’t any of these guys have a second syllable? what ever happened to Ei-sen-how-er? since Bush, the Republicans all seem to come pre-”Ike”d) who really wants to be President for a reason. And Kemp is a very good guy. But (a) he’s not running for president; (b) we already have a dynamite one-syllable vice president; (c) though irresistibly likable and thoroughly decent, Kemp can’t match Clinton/Gore on the economic, technical, social and foreign policy issues. Clinton/Gore have four valuable years’ experience running what we used to call “the free world.” Why change CEOs when things are going rather well?

But as I say, Jack Kemp isn’t running for President, Bob Dole is. Big problem. Clipped thoughts. Little embarrassed by it all.

I’m not one of those who talk, every time there’s an election for anything, of having to choose between “the lesser of two evils.” I think many of our elected representatives are really exceptional, dedicated people.

Not a wacko like Ross Perot or a personable lightweight like Dan Quayle. But Clinton, Dole, Gore, Kemp, Bush, Dukakis . . . while I clearly have my preferences, I could go on at some length as to why I think they are better, by and large, than they get credit for being. All anyone remembers about Dukakis is how silly he looked in the tank. But this was a very sharp, fine guy.

I guess it is part of our American birthright to consider all politicians crooks and morons — the criminal class, as Mark Twain long ago referred to Congress. But surely in our more private, sober moments, we realize we’re fortunate to have people of such caliber willing and eager to go through this for us. Would you? I wouldn’t.

Which brings me back to poor Bob Dole. You know he doesn’t believe in that 15% tax cut — it’s exactly the kind of thing he is prudent and responsible enough to know makes no sense right now, much as we’d all enjoy the break. You know it wasn’t his burning conviction that this would solve America’s problems (the good economy? the low unemployment? the modest inflation? the amazing stock market?). Or that it was the chance to realize this grand vision that motivated him to run for President.

Give Steve Forbes and Jack Kemp one thing — they really believe in tax cuts. Bob Dole is more of the school that looks at all the Forbes family built in the era of 70% marginal tax brackets and concludes: “The top bracket was 70%; busted their butts to build a great business anyway.”

A tax cut when the economy is strong, as now, could overheat it, leading to inflation that kills the nice long economic run we’ve been having. Or a tax cut could easily spook the bond market, leading to higher interest rates (a tax hike of a different sort), that could also kill our nice run.

And why do we have to call him Bob Dole, anyway? Why does HE have to call himself Bob Dole? Can’t we just call him Bob? Or Dole? And can’t he just call himself “I” or “me”?

Especially because his chances of winning seem modest, why doesn’t Bob Dole just shuck his handlers and use the amazing three-month megaphone he’s won — his real prize for so many years of public service — to say what he really feels and lead the country back a little from cynicism, negative campaigning, and partisan rancor toward the civility, decency and common sense you know are, for the most part, in his heart?

(And why doesn’t he finally denounce the tobacco interests that he and his wife have been beholden to for so long? Not cool.)

He’d still lose — Clinton/Gore are the better team to lead us into the next century. But he’d have made a real contribution in this, his final major act of public service.

Tomorrow: The Good “Surrogate Tax Cut” Dole’s Handlers Have Given Him


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