Decisionmaking in a Bob Dole Presidency

He had to know that the press - not to mention his opponent - would nail him for the contradiction. Bob Dole, who grew up in overalls on the Dust Bowl plains of Kansas, was banking his presidential ambitions on the very theory he once ridiculed in jokes: that erasing the government's deficit was as simple as cutting taxes.

The reversal would be lampooned by editorial cartoonists and tarred by President Clinton's "rapid response" spin doctors. Some might cast it as the desperate act of a faltering candidacy. Surely Mr. Dole knew how the game was played.

He apparently wasn't worried.

"The thing that impressed me was his serenity once the decision was made," says John Taylor, the Stanford University economist who played a central role in creating Dole's broad program of tax cuts and budget reform. "He was decisive, and there was a calmness and a surety about him."

Presidential campaigns are imperfect models by which to judge how a person would perform in the Oval Office. A candidate's role is not fully that of the delegating executive nor of the consensus-building legislator. Nonetheless, every campaign has key moments and story lines that provide clues to the character of the candidate, how he might spar with Congress or handle a crisis.

The evolution of Dole's economic plan - the centerpiece of his presidential campaign - offers some insights into how Dole arrives at decisions. What emerges from interviews with those involved in the four-month process is a portrait of a man who is intensely private and enigmatic in his decisionmaking. Simultaneously engaged in the number-crunching as well as the political viability of his nascent policy, Dole approached the task using all the skills of Senate leadership: dealmaking, consensus-building, and vote-counting.

If Dole's decisionmaking process was informed and pragmatic, it was also solitary. It is his custom to listen intently to a range of voices and then recede, seldom leaking a hint of his thinking even to his closest colleagues and advisers.

This private style served Dole well in the Senate, but some analysts and former Dole aides question how effective it would be in the vastly different setting of the Oval Office.

The presidency and Senate leadership "go in opposite directions," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "The president must be able to fashion a great glowing vision, and the people around him have to know what is in the offing in order to soften up public opinion. When you're operating with a kind of revelatory - rather than collegial - style of decisionmaking, it's hard to lay the groundwork."

Listening and mulling

It was a bright day in early May, and Dole had gathered in his Capitol office a collection of staffers, a few fellow senators, prominent figures from previous Republican administrations, and some of the best conservative economists in the country.

Dole's only ground rules were that an economic plan had to stimulate growth and be kind to those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. That was as important to him as making the plan something he could win on, according to those involved. Both his parents had worked hard to survive the Depression, and Dole wanted to ease the burden on a middle class squeezed by immobile wages, rising costs, and what he regarded as an overtaxing, overregulating government.

Anyone could offer ideas. If there were roads he didn't want to go down, he seldom indicated as much during months of discussion. Dole sat at the head of the table, asking questions but not dominating the sessions. If he couldn't make every meeting, he'd be on the phone - sometimes to one individual, sometimes on conference calls with economists around the country.

As the policy-crafting circle widened, it reflected the influence Dole has amassed over the years. He brought in former Secretary of State George Shultz, former White House economic adviser Michael Boskin, and economists Milton Friedman and Martin Anderson. Even Steve Forbes, his former opponent in the GOP primary, was involved.

Dole concerned himself with the details. As a former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who played a key role in President Reagan's 1986 tax reform, Dole was well-versed in economic issues. In meeting after meeting, he sought an understanding of how various tax cuts would affect different income brackets, how balancing the budget would improve Americans' standard of living, and so on. Between meetings, various participants were busy crunching numbers and drafting proposals - always at Dole's request.

"He was always quite engaged," says Gary Becker, a Nobel economist at the University of Chicago who participated in the process. "He didn't state what results he expected ahead of time. He just kept asking questions."

When rumors first leaked that the campaign would unveil a broad economic plan involving significant tax cuts, the expectation was that an announcement would come in early June. Weeks went by. Even conservative columnists were growing restive.

That the process stretched through the summer reflected two points. Though his campaign advisers downplay it, one was the conflict over how to reconcile Dole's lengthy record of opposition to supply-side economics with a plan that relied heavily on tax cuts to spur growth.

The other was that Dole trusted in his open, commission-like approach. That's how he "saved" Social Security in 1983 and, according to his comments in the Oct. 6 presidential debate, that's how he'd tackle Medicare and campaign-finance reforms.

The plan "is something that he fashioned himself and that he believed to be the optimum approach for this very important aspect of our country," says Don Rumsted, a senior campaign official who helped Dole steer the process. "The bulk of it was probably decided as he went along."

Dole seldom writes anything down, leaving that task to his staff. Rather, he relies on a keen ability to listen and retain - a skill he developed in law school. Unable to take notes during lectures because of a war injury to his right arm, Dole tape-recorded his classroom lessons, and then spent hours reviewing them each night until he'd mastered the material.

That approach seems to have shaped his system of policymaking. As Senate majority leader, associates recall, Dole would have two or three meetings going at the same time. He'd move among them, listening and asking questions.

The trouble with this kind of leadership, Professor Baker argues, is that it requires a person to lay aside his own views for the sake of brokering a deal. Dole, he notes, is less of an original thinker than a grand facilitator. Indeed, Dole is often dismissive of words such as "ideology" and "vision."

"Dole's thinking is derivative," Baker observes. "It is a function of the discussions he would have with his fellow senators. People would tell him what they wanted or didn't want, and he'd have to harmonize their opinions."

Mulling long and privately over the impact of his tax plan was only part of Dole's approach. From the outset, he was also concerned with the plan's legislative prospects, say the individuals involved.

It was by no mere act of friendship, then, that powerful legislators such as Senate Budget Committee chairman Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico helped create Dole's plan. Indeed, one of the candidate's strongest assets as president would be his connections in Congress. "People forget I have a lot of friends on the Hill," he once told the Monitor.

After the economic group pitched ideas around, "there is no question but that [Dole] would then go back to Senator Domenici or [Florida GOP Sen.] Connie Mack ... and talk to them," Mr. Rumsted recalls. He wanted assurances that, if president, he'd have a fair chance of pushing his economic proposals through Congress.

That may help explain why so much of the plan borrows from planks within the Republican Party. Ideas for a $500-per-child tax credit and a limit on product liability appeared first in Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. The call to reform the tax code echoes campaign themes of several of his opponents during the primary season.

The inclusiveness of the process is also characteristic of Dole. By inviting a wide range of people to contribute to his economic plan, and then having more experts read the final product to win their endorsements, Dole satisfied his own skepticism about what he was proposing.

"He wasn't after consensus," recalls Dr. Taylor. "He would listen to us discuss issues, taking note of when we agreed or disagreed. He was confirming his instincts."

The elusive moment of decision

Dole's decisionmaking style may suit him fine, but it can be unnerving to those around him, raising questions about how effective his methods would be in the White House.

On the wintery morning of Dec. 3, 1994, a Saturday, Elizabeth Dole arrived at her husband's Senate office for a formal, closed-door meeting with him about his interest in running for president. She wouldn't discuss something this big at home over blueberry muffins. She knew her husband's way of meandering into decisions, knew the effect it had on his previous attempts at the nomination. If he was going to get in the race again, she wanted him to be deliberate about it.

As Bob Woodward notes in his book "The Choice," a wife's firmness apparently carried little influence. Dole's closest campaign consultants ultimately learned they were in the game from an impromptu affirmation the senator gave to a reporter's question.

After months of meetings, he'd made the decision, at some point, alone.

Highlights of the Dole Economic Plan

Pass a balanced budget amendment to the US Constitution.

Balance the federal budget by 2002, without cutting Social Security, defense spending, or veterans benefits.

Enact tax cuts, including the following:

* Reduce income-tax rates across the board by 15 percent.

* Establish a $500-per-child tax credit.

* Cut the capital gains tax rate from 28 percent to 14 percent.

* Repeal 1993 tax increase on Social Security benefits.

* Allow individuals to expand IRAs and establish spousal IRA.

* Require three-fifths supermajority vote in Congress to raise income-tax rates.

* Scrap the current tax code.

Eliminate IRS filing for 40 million low- and middle-income taxpayers.

Allow low- and middle-income parents to deduct all interest on student loans, and allow parents to set up tax-free education investment accounts.

Curtail "hidden tax" of regulations by applying cost-benefit analyses to all new federal rules, establish a "sunsetting" task force to weed out obsolete and costly regulations, and require review of all federal regulations every four years.

Limit punitive damages to $250,000 or three times the economic damages, whichever is greater, in an effort to end "frivolous lawsuits" that have American business "paying a tithe to trial lawyers whose avarice is a drag on our whole economy."

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