Spring: The Flow of Power

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IN covering politics, the media are drawn like magnets to the flow of power.

Four presidential cycles ago, in 1980, Sen. Bob Dole was ignored in the parking lot of a New Hampshire hotel the morning after it was apparent the voting rush was to Ronald Reagan. I spoke with him briefly as he got into his modest rented car. The cameras and notetakers crowded elsewhere.

In politics, unless one has sabotaged one's own campaign, defeat is impersonal. This year's 1980 Doles are named Alexander, Lugar, et al. They will be joined in due course by Forbes and Buchanan, although conceivably not until Steve and Pat have had their say about the platform at the GOP convention.

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In a democracy, the essential discussion is shut off by a vote. Opponents will likely claim that Dole is the true leader only of this or that segment of his party, to diminish his clout and to prepare a base for the next election. It was said about Bill Clinton after the last election, for example, that he represented only a minority of the electorate because Ross Perot had taken chunks of his and George Bush's votes. But as much governing power goes with a narrow win as with a big win. Bragging rights bear little relation to the margin of victory.

This isn't to say that politicians do not feel devastated when their big ambitions go bust. They can put a ''moral victory'' face on it: It can be useful in a democracy for all factions to have candidates in the field; this lends credibility to the outcome. But if the force isn't with a candidate, this may not be a personal reading at all. Dole obviously has more experience today than he did 16 years ago when, despite having been the vice-presidential candidate four years earlier, he was rejected cold by his party. He has acquired a more-temperate campaign manner, but he's the same person he was then - by his admission he's Mr. Consistency.

If defeat were personal, observers would declare every candidate in the primaries except the nominee humbled by the process, and then the loser humbled by the election, and even the winner humbled, if not by the demands of governing, then by his term's limit. This would be cynical reasoning.

Candidates do not make defeat easier for themselves by the strange habit of saying ''When I am president....'' The immodesty, the denial of the odds of winning, should count against using such devices to show oneself a ''winner.''

Having lost along the way may be a precondition to trust. One business chief turned town an applicant with a splendid, unblemished record with the words, ''But you've never failed.'' He was unwilling to turn over responsibility to someone without that crucial experience.

In a democracy, power is loaned. Authority, an aspect of character, is another matter. Authority implies judgment and integrity, which may be vested with elective power or not. A public's vote can neither provide these qualities nor take them away.

With two-fifths of the GOP delegates apportioned, the Republican race is looking about as expected. The power inherent in a nomination is flowing decisively Dole's way. He is being badgered to declare what a Dole nomination ''is all about'' - his phrase. And attention is turning to how candidate Dole as legislative leader and candidate Clinton as president will match up in coming months during governing maneuvers over such issues as the budget.

The primary process appears to be working well. The tactical plays, negative-ad hits, spending advantages, voter-anger whiplash, have made their appearance, and Dole is the survivor. There should be no resenting Dole's momentum. He has spent his time ignored in the parking lot.

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