Bob Dole is one of the smartest politicians I’ve ever met.
For a time in the early 1980s, the senator from Kansas virtually ran the U.S. government — an undertold story in an age of Ronald Reagan idolatry.
Dole helped engineer compromises on issues ranging from Social Security and tax reform to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. He was focused, a superior negotiator and most likely would have made a pretty good president.
But Dole was a bad presidential candidate. He had no unifying campaign theme. His speeches rambled. His debate performances were often poor.
He delegated campaign responsibilities but never really let his aides do their jobs. His efforts, both in 1988 and 1996, routinely lacked the discipline and intelligence that marked his time in the Senate.
Dole is a partisan Republican, so it’s unlikely he’d want to share his campaign experiences with a Democrat. If he wanted to help the other side, though, it’s clear Hillary Clinton could learn a lesson or two from the man who ran against her husband, Bill, two decades ago.
Hillary Clinton is a much better stump speaker than Dole. But she has a tough time, as he did, fully explaining the reason she is running for the country’s highest office. Her central argument — I’m tested, experienced, ready — eerily echoes Dole’s primary rationale.
A presidential campaign built only on a resumé almost always struggles. Voters make their presidential decisions for many different reasons, but few see the process as just a job interview. They look for inspiration as well as perspiration.
That’s particularly true this year. We’re still trying to fully understand the popularity of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, but surely one explanation is neither candidate claims much experience in government (despite Sanders’ long tenure in Congress). Both are running classic outsider candidacies, providing simple answers for complex problems.
Clinton is a classic insider, as Dole was in 1996. And her campaign can sometimes seem technical and remote, just as his did then.
Sanders wants to break up the banks. Hillary Clinton proposed a bill, which was offered as an amendment, which was added in committee, which was part of a negotiation …
There’s plenty of time for this to change, of course. There’s a fine line between simple and simplistic, and primary voters may be awakening to the central contradiction of Trump’s and Sanders’ candidacies — it’s easy to propose something, but it’s much harder to actually make it happen. At some point, voters will want to see both outsiders sweat a little too.
But Clinton can probably use the next few weeks to rethink her strategy, and Dole’s experience might help. She isn’t likely to turn to me for first-step advice, but I’m offering it anyway: Figure out how much money you were paid for those speeches to Wall Street banks and donate that amount to charity.
You know what? Bob Dole used to do that all the time. It wasn’t enough to make him president, but it got him pretty close.