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How Far Will Republicans Go? If Past Is Prologue…

Posted on | November 7, 2019 | No Comments

Mike Magee

As Jeff Sessions appeals for Donald Trump’s support, and Michael Bloomberg positions to enter the Democratic Primary, with the Iowa caucuses fast approaching, the future of health care, let alone the Republican party, is playing out in full view. The unspoken question, “How far would Republican leaders go to win their own elections? Would they turn on each other? Would they turn on Trump? If past is prologue, this may be a bumpy ride.

Back in 1988, Vice President George Bush was not happy. Since he had announced for the Presidency, all anyone wanted to talk about was his role in Iran Contra. And as polls were revealing problems in Iowa, Bush decided to over rule his advisors and grant an interview to CBS’s career killer, Dan Rather. Why? Because Bush recognized him as a fellow Texan, and therefore a friend. He trusted him. Well, that was a mistake. It hadn’t gone well. The following day, when they asked fellow candidate for the Presidency, Bob Dole, about the performance, he wondered aloud if the vice-president couldn’t handle Rather, what was he going to do about Gorbachev?

Gorge Bush’s people were not amused. Their release, coming right before the Iowa Caucus, read in part, “Iowa Republicans must weigh Bob Dole’s record of cronyism and his history of mean-spiritedness carefully, before they decide whom to support as the Party’s nominee for President.” The release then went on to assert that Bob had “…showed his mean-spirited nature in 1976, when he nearly single-handedly brought the Republican national ticket down to defeat.” Just in case Bob was still self-composed, they insulted his wife as well, noting near the end that Dole’s public statements “…fails to mention that he and his wife are now millionaires, and had an income of $2.19 million from 1982 through 1986.”And for the icing on the cake, there were a few extra reference points including the fancy Watergate apartment complex, the warm weather condominium in Florida, and Elizabeth’s blind trust currently “under federal investigation”. That should do it, they predicted, as they handed the release off to the Iowa Register.

And it did do it. The Register reporter went right to Dole and asked if he believed Bush was behind the release. Dole responded, “Either George Bush is responsible for this kind of campaign…or he’s totally out of control…Maybe he isn’t in charge…Maybe he’s totally out of the loop.” Next stop, Clinton, Iowa, where the vice-president was campaigning. Bush was well-prepared for the question, having been prepped by aides, and armed with an answer that would ensure that Dole’s ire would last well into the New Hampshire primary that was only eight days after Iowa. Was he responsible for the offending release? Bush’s answer: “I don’t endorse it. But I don’t reject it.”

Bush didn’t win a single county in Iowa, but the next day he was in New Hampshire with a new-found focus. He could lose this thing. They took a two-prong approach. First, photo-op’s with the beloved Vice-President, followed by man-on-the-street campaigning across the state, with slugger friend Ted Williams in tow. Second, an attack ad designed to further infuriate an already severely upset Dole. The solution: “The Straddle Ad”. It couldn’t come soon enough. Dole had been working feverishly in the state. and made up 18 points in just three days and was still climbing. The weekend before the election, new poll numbers were released: Dole 32%, Bush 29%.

The Bush camp put in a call to the state’s popular governor, John Sununu, who had been stumping for them. What could he do to help? The Governor had a favor he could call in from the state’s popular Channel 9.  A month earlier, he had treated the station to a highly publicized visit by the Vice-President, complete with pictures, hugs, and follow-up notes. They hadn’t forgotten, and at the Governor’s request, they said they’d be happy to free up air time for his new ad. That Sunday afternoon, it aired. The visuals were striking for the time. Dole faced off Dole isssue by issue until the grand finale – taxes. The voice over: “Bob Dole straddles, and he just won’t promise not to raise taxes. And you know what that means.” Driving home the point, the word “Straddles” fades into “Taxes – He can’t say no.”

The strategy more than delivered. That Tuesday, Bush scored a resounding victory with 38% of the vote to Dole’s 29% and Pat Robertson’s 9%. The Southern pastor would soon drop out, but Bob would battle on. The numbers were bad enough that evening, but the final personal affront was still to come. NBC’s Tom Brokaw was reporting the results live in New Hampshire. Bush had been declared the victor that evening, and was live on set with Tom, beaming and happy. Dole was in his hotel room, mic’d up and on camera. But there was no monitor to see Brokaw and Bush. Dole’s earpiece was not live when Brokaw asked Bush if he had anything he’d like to say to Bob? Bush’s congenial reply, “Naw, just wish him well. And meet him in the South.” Bob’s ear piece then comes live with Brokaw’s voice, “Senator? Any message for the Vice-President?” Dole, with eyes, narrow and dark, reminiscent of his mentor Dick Nixon, angrily replies, “Yeah. Stop lying about my record.”

By the end of the primaries, Bush had amassed 68% of the vote to Bob’s 19%.  Bush went on to soundly defeat Michael Dukakis, gaining 53% of the popular vote and 79% of the electoral vote. To accomplish this feat, Bush’s handlers employed a secret weapon – a relatively unknown Ohio native, who would later go on to create FOX News for Rupert Murdock. His name was Roger Ailes, who had created the “Senator Straddle Ad.”  Ailes encore was the now infamous Willie Horton ad that claimed that the Governor of Massachusetts allowed 1st Degree murders to have weekend passes from prison. Said the ad, “Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly rapping his girl friend.” The ad ends with a confused looking Dukakis and the statement, “Weekend Prison Passes: Dukakis On Crime”. In commenting on the latest Ailes creation, Bush attack dog Lee Atwater said of Ailes,  “He has two speeds: attack and destroy.” As for the creator’s opinion on his own work at the time, he noted, “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.”

Not surprisingly, when now President Bush returned to the White House, the Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress, did not meet him with open arms. Bush had inherited a ballooning budget deficit exceeding $150 billion dollars a year. With not so much as an apology, he predictably turned to Bob Dole for help. What is remarkable is that Bob responded, apparently holding no grudge against his life long opponent. After all, this was the guy that Richard Nixon had turned to when he fired Bob as head of the Republican National Committee. This was the guy who Reagan chose over him as vice-president. And this was the guy who insulted his and Elizabeth’s integrity, and labeled him “Senator Straddle” and a tax offender. But at the end of the day, politics was politics, and he was a Republican, and somebody had to keep the country moving. And who knew what things might look like four or eight years from now. You never know.

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