On Dole's Canvas: Clinton Portrayed As Untrustworthy
Issue isn't Whitewater but leadership style
WASHINGTON — Bob Dole, struggling in his quest for the presidency, wants you to know that he's a man of character and President Clinton is not.
But he's not reviving the old stories about stories about womanizing or the Vietnam draft or murky financial dealings. He's talking about Mr. Clinton's style as president. The indictment: Clinton talks like a conservative and acts like a liberal.
"He'll look you in the eye and tell you exactly what you want to hear," said the Republican Senate majority leader in a recent speech to supporters. By contrast, Mr. Dole says, he's a principled conservative who will do what he says he's going to do: reform welfare, balance the budget, fight a "real war" on criminals, and conduct a foreign policy of strength and decisiveness.
All the old Clinton character issues are still there, lurking below the surface, bubbling up at times (as with Whitewater) to the front pages. Late-night hosts also seem to have an endless supply of Clinton punchlines, providing the public with a steady reminder of the president's foibles.
But Clinton did win four years ago - even with the old character issue dogging him. And Dole campaign officials know they can't sit back and hope something major breaks on Whitewater. So Dole is focusing instead on a character issue they say is ultimately more important to the nation - how Clinton has governed.
"The insincerity of Bill Clinton's rhetoric and actions will continuously remind voters of the importance of character," says Christina Martin, a spokeswoman for the Dole campaign.
Democrats call Dole's approach a dishonest and desperate effort to revive a campaign that has failed to get off the ground. While Dole officials say Clinton has been slippery on just about every issue, Clinton campaign officials say the president has held to his beliefs and vetoed bills - such as a balanced budget and welfare reform - to protect the public from bad legislation.
They also point to polls that show Clinton ahead of Dole in areas of character and values (in addition to being well ahead overall). A Harris poll last week put Clinton ahead of Dole 52 percent to 40 percent on the question "Who do you think has the better character, Bob Dole or Bill Clinton?"
'Honest and truthful'
On the question of which candidate "shares my values," a recent Pew Center poll put Clinton ahead of Dole 47 points to 37 points. But that same poll found more of the public believes Dole is "honest and truthful" (39 to 34) and "keeps promises" (35 to 32).
"Ultimately, one doesn't get the idea that people trust either of them," says Humphrey Taylor, chairman of polling firm Louis Harris and Associates in New York.
Dole officials play down recent polling data, saying the public still hasn't focused yet on the race. And they say they've only just begun to make the case about Clinton's lack of presidential character. Dole's own style in the character wars is not to call the president names - or even to use the "C" word directly - but rather to impugn his integrity by example.
In one recent speech, for instance, Dole said Clinton prefers to "spend his spare time raising money from the Hollywood elite" while Dole represents "the common sense of ordinary Americans," referring to his Midwestern roots. Dole also speaks frequently of his dramatic war experiences - raising by implication Clinton's avoidance of military service.
People who speak for Dole on the stump are less circumspect. In introductory remarks before a Dole speech this weekend, Rep. Harold Rogers (R) of Kentucky spoke of how a leader of Dole's "character" would do a better job with teen-age drug dealers than Clinton has.
Last month, speaking in her hometown, Dole's wife, Elizabeth, was blunt on the character issue: "When Bob Dole tells you something, you can take it to the bank. When Bill Clinton tells you something, you can get a subpoena."
Even if Dole ultimately convinces the public he's got more character than Clinton, is it enough to swing the race? "It's necessary but not sufficient," says Republican pollster Vincent Breglio, who is not working for Dole.
Other Republicans echo that sentiment, adding that Dole - and the GOP - has yet to articulate a vision for the presidency.
"The party has no argument to make on its own behalf," says David Tell, opinion editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
Defining presidential character
Behind the question of which candidate has better "character" lies the issue of how to define "presidential character." If a candidate has committed adultery, for example, does he or she lack the character needed to be president?
James David Barber, a professor at Princeton University and author of a book on character and the presidency, uses terms like "energy," "love of people," and "love of politics," when defining presidential character.
Tom Cronin, president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and a presidential scholar, uses terms like "intellectual honesty" and "a certain amount of consistency and integrity." However, he adds, "someone who's too consistent isn't right for the job. There needs to be a willingness to improvise."
Thus, someone like Jimmy Carter, who had impeccable personal credentials, failed as a president because he was not flexible enough, says Mr. Cronin.
"We want our presidents to be like us, but also be a lot better than us," says Cronin. "We want to tell our children, 'That's someone to look up to.' "
This explains, at least in part, the public's desire to have Colin Powell run for president. But, say observers, having good character doesn't guarantee he'd be a successful president - or that he'd win the race.