Not too long ago, this column took a look at what was being billed as the Character Issue, "character" being defined by the pundits as that quality which Bob Dole presumably possesses and which Bill Clinton utterly lacks.

One doesn't have to be a Republican to appreciate the simplicity of this definition. The problem is trying to apply it to Real Life, which has this irritating tendency to resist simple things.

What the pollsters are discovering is that yes, Bill Clinton is the very model of the modern political weasel, and no, it doesn't seem to be affecting his popularity very much. Turns out that the President isn't that popular at all, and the support he has is something less than solid, yet it doesn't seem to matter a whole lot to the electorate.

How did this happen in a culture infested with the likes of William Bennett? I'm persuaded that it's a measure both of expectations and reality, and the nature of the gap between them.

The premise is, again, deceptively simple. Regarding Clinton, the voters have decided: once a weasel, always a weasel. They know what they can expect from him — an approach to the issues that borders on the gymnastic, and a desire to be all things to all voters. If he has principles, he keeps them under wraps.

You'd think people would definitely prefer the straight-arrow Bob Dole. Certainly people knew where Dole stood: a hawk on the deficit, impatient with extremists on both sides and capable of spotting common ground where seemingly no one else could. Came the Republican convention, and suddenly Bob Dole was spouting off the sort of supply-side rhetoric he deplored as a Senator, and cozying up to the activists he used to ignore. One expects this sort of thing from a Bill Clinton, but from Bob Dole? The electorate has yet to make up its mind for the final time, but if any of these polls are to be believed, not even Dole's proffered tax cut is enough to compensate for voter disillusionment. Much noise is made in the media these days about the putative cynicism of American politics in the 1990s; Bob Dole, to my astonishment and perhaps to his own, has become a shareholder in that tawdry little enterprise, and he definitely won't like the dividends.

The Vent

#22
20 September 1996

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