Character Isn’t Enough for Dole

October 30, 1996

Bob Dole’s exasperated call on Americans to “wake up” to the fateful decision they will make in the voting booths next Tuesday reflects the frustration he and his supporters feel over the seeming irrelevance of the character issue in the 1996 presidential sweepstakes.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, the news is filled with sordid tales of potentially illegal fundraising from Indonesian conglomerates and Buddhist monks that must make even the most loyal Democrat blanch. At the same time, gossip is rife that Kenneth Starr’s office might bring indictments after the election and the possibility that a legal nightmare might ruin any chance of a successful second Clinton term. And yet none of this seems to faze the electorate, who seem as disposed to re-elect President Bill Clinton in late October as they have been throughout the year. Dole’s clarion call, “A better man for a better America,” seems to be falling on deaf ears. Does character not count in American elections?

In “The Responsible Electorate,” a book addressed primarily to his professional colleagues, the esteemed political scientist V.O. Key argued forcefully that voters are not fools, that they make common-sense retrospective judgments on how their political leaders appear to have performed in office and that they vote accordingly. I suspect that Key was correct and that voters this year have put questions about Clinton’s character in their proper place.

Mind you, few voters mistake Bill Clinton for a saint. He was introduced to most Americans in the winter of 1992 by Gennifer Flowers, courtesy of Star Magazine. His campaign for the presidency was plagued with one scandal after another. Throughout his term of office in the White House, he has been subject to a flood of unfavorable publicity via aggrieved individuals, independent counsels, congressional committees and investigative reporters. All of this has left its mark on public opinion, as polls consistently report that citizens give Dole the edge over Clinton on personal rectitude.

But whatever the president’s perceived shortcomings, they apparently have long been discounted by voters. They are prepared to live with Clinton’s imperfections as long as he governs under conditions of relative peace and prosperity and demonstrates a keen appreciation of their hopes and fears. But the potency of many of the character charges against the president seems to be weakened by what voters accurately see as the nature of these political times.

We live in an era of intense partisan and ideological polarization, in which politics is waged by means other than elections. Charges of unethical or illegal behavior are now the conventional weapons of political combat. Cottage industries have sprung up to get the goods on political opponents. It is increasingly difficult for a normal person, who spends relatively little time paying attention to politicians and public affairs, to distinguish fact from partisan-inspired fiction.

After four years of investigation, the Whitewater investment imbroglio and related matters remain as confusing and inconclusive as ever. The firings of the White House Travel Office employees appear cruel and clumsy, but hardly the stuff of a major scandal. The mishandling and possible misuse of FBI files of Bush administration officials had the makings of a potentially impeachable offense, but all the evidence to date points to incompetence rather than venality. As for the appalling shakedown of wealthy individuals and companies as part of the soft-money fund-raising activities of the Democratic Party, it is largely following the example set by the Republican Party when it controlled the White House. The campaign-finance system is out of control; it is also bipartisan.

I suspect that voters see frailties as well as strengths in both presidential candidates.

Neither has been unswerving in his positions on economic and social policy; both have demonstrated admirable public resilience. Character does matter, but it is not an overwhelming advantage for Dole. Performance, as judged by voters and analyzed by Key many years ago, seems to be the stronger impetus for the president on Tuesday.