Posted on November 27, 1995 in Washington Watch
Political discourse in Washington during the past two months was consumed with two events. First came the frenzy of speculation that Colin Powell might make a run for the presidency, and then the letdown when he announced that he would not. Only two days later, the government was virtually shut down and remained so for a week as a result of a bitter dispute between the White House and the Congress over the terms of the 1996 budget.
Outside the media limelight and largely forgotten in both instances was the profound negative affect that both developments had on the presidential ambitions of Republican Senator Robert Dole, the Senate Majority Leader, and the positive impact both had for Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Since September, Powell was the lead political story in the news on an almost daily basis. His national book tour and his flirtation with a presidential bid delighted the press and political establishment. He was cast as “the ideal candidate, an Eisenhower of the 90’s,” a moderate Republican who could win that party back from the control of the extreme right wing that has dominated its agenda for over a decade.
At first, the right wing the Republican party was silenced. But as the Powell momentum appeared to grow, conservatives began to speak out against him. Finally, only a few days before Powell announced that he would not run, a coalition of hard-line conservatives gathered to denounce his possible candidacy and announce that they would not allow him to stop their “revolution” which is turning the party and the country in their direction.
Throughout this period, Dole’s poll numbers steadily dropped. At first, polls showed that while Powell could beat President Clinton in a 2-way race, Dole still edged out Powell in most states’ Republican primary polls. But toward the end, even in conservative New Hampshire, Powell was seen to be ahead of Dole.
And when Powell finally dropped out, while Dole breathed a sigh of relief, his polling figures were significantly lower than they were before the episode started. In New Hampshire, for example, he had declined from a pre-Powell high of 45% to a low of 27% in primary polls, while his nearest challenger in that state, Pat Buchanan, increased his poll numbers from 9% to 17%. And in the national two-way race against President Clinton, Dole was showing as losing by over 10% – with Clinton leading in almost every region in the country.
It appears that Dole suffered from too little exposure during the two months of Powell-mania, and that in contrast to the former general he appeared as less of a leader and too much a captive of the right-wing of the Republican part.
But if two months in Powell’s shadow hurt Dole, the Republican Senator has fared no better in the shadow of his colleague, Republican Speaker of the U.S. House Newt Gingrich. during the one-week shutdown of the federal government.
Gingrich is an angry and confrontational leader of the right wing’s “conservative revolution” in the congress. While wielding considerable power in the Congress due to the landslide Republican victory in the 1994 elections in which 73 predominantly conservative Congressmen were elected to take control of the House of Representatives, Gingrich is a remarkably unpopular figure with the public at large. In fact, a recent poll shows that he is as unpopular as Richard Nixon was after Watergate.
The difficulty for Dole is that it was Gingrich who led the week-long battle against the White House over the 1996 budget. Not only did the Clinton Administration have the upper hand in this war because they were able to portray the Republican budget as too extreme in its cuts in social spending for the elderly and the poor and disabled, but Gingrich – as spokesman for the Congressional Republicans – was perceived as too harsh and too rash and too arrogant.
Senate Majority Leader Dole, the leading Republican contender for the presidency of the U.S. appeared on television each day standing silently next to Gingrich as the Speaker castigated the Administration and stole the spotlight.
What everyone in Washington knew was that if Dole had been in charge, the debate with the White House would have been civil, and compromise would have been possible far earlier in the process. So the question that emerged was why Dole took a back seat to Gingrich drive the debate. Was it further evidence of his being captive to the right-wing? And what did it say about his leadership qualities?
Through all of this Clinton came out virtually unscathed. After three years in office the President seemed to have finally found his bearings and emerged as a determined leader. Saying no to the Republican revolution, standing firm on principles and agreeing to compromise only when his priorities were recognized, in the end Clinton looked like the moderates’ best hope for 1996.
Clearly Powell would have presented a serious challenge to the Democratic President. He could have taken away from the President a number of voting blocs traditionally Democratic in their voting tendencies, especially African Americans. If Powell had weathered the inevitable media backlash that engulfs every serious candidate (and now we have no way of knowing if he would have), his challenge to Clinton could have been one of the most exciting in recent U.S. history. But with Powell gone, Clinton will claim that moderates have no place in the Republican party as currently constituted, a claim that Republicans will have to work hard to refute.
Dole can still reclaim his leadership mantle and can rise above the role that he has fallen into, but to do that he will have to maneuver carefully. With less than 100 days before the first presidential voting in Iowa and the first presidential primary in New Hampshire, the senator will have to lead the budget debate toward a successful conclusion, maintain enough of his conservative credentials to keep his ground against Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire and conservative Senator Phil Graham in Iowa, while at the same time displaying to the broader electorate that he can be more than the leader of one wing of one party.
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