GOP Themes Boost Choice, Hamper Dole

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In choosing to back vouchers and blast teachers' unions as the key elements of his education agenda, Bob Dole may be doing more good for those issues than for his presidential campaign.

While voucher proponents and union critics bask in the campaign limelight, the Republican nominee has yet to make much headway with his two-pronged agenda. In fact, he still faces some critics within the Republican Party who are uncomfortable with his positions.

But going into next week's election, the issues draw a contrast between the former Kansas senator and President Clinton--a difference that both men seem very comfortable with.

"He's made an enormous contribution as we think about what I'd call a redefined system of public education," said former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, who ran against Mr. Dole in the GOP primaries but has worked with the Dole campaign since then. "Bob Dole has challenged the unions more directly than any president, and that's a bold move because the unions are powerful."

But while Mr. Dole draws praise in conservative circles for displaying courage in criticizing the unions and embracing the idea of publicly financed tuition vouchers, he has yet to overcome skepticism from most voters, as measured by public opinion polls:

  • An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken a few days after the Republican National Convention in August--a time when Mr. Dole's voucher proposal and his criticism of the teachers' unions reached their widest audience--found that 47 percent of 806 registered voters said Mr. Clinton, of the two candidates, would "do a better job with education"; just 28 percent said Mr. Dole would. The percent favoring Mr. Dole on the issue had risen by only 1 percentage point from June, when he had yet to announce his education platform.
  • In early September, ABC News polled 1,027 registered and likely voters about the influence of teachers' unions. Forty-six percent said the unions have a positive impact on schools, compared with 31 percent who said they have a negative impact. An even broader majority of respondents who identified themselves as independents--an especially coveted segment of the electorate--saw the unions as a positive force.
  • And after the first presidential debate on Oct. 6, during which Mr. Dole and President Clinton discussed the challenger's "opportunity scholarship" program for providing state and federally funded vouchers for low-income students, 58 percent of 232 debate viewers polled by Newsweek magazine said they agreed with Mr. Clinton's position; 31 percent said they agreed with Mr. Dole. Even with the poll's 7-percentage-point margin of error, the president's advantage was high.

Observers say the polls reflect an inherent advantage Democrats tend to have when voters focus on education--an advantage the Democrats exploited during their budget battle with congressional Republicans last year. At the same time, these observers add, the weak support for Mr. Dole's approach also shows that the Republican challenger has failed to convince voters of his own message.

"There is a reservoir of open support for [school choice] and the question is: Has Dole found the magic ways to tap that reservoir?" said Quentin Quade, the director of the Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "I don't think he has."

Dennis Shea, Mr. Dole's issues director, disputed the polls and the criticism, and said vouchers make sense to voters.

"People understand the point the senator makes that if you have choice in higher education, you can have choice in elementary and secondary education," he said.

Genesis of Plan

During his long career in politics, Mr. Dole has made his reputation by carefully balancing the dual roles of partisan leader and compromising lawmaker.

As the top Senate Republican from 1985 until his retirement in June, Mr. Dole covered a tremendous amount of legislative ground. But he made little time for studying the nuances of education policy.

Mr. Dole generally voted in favor of voucher programs on the Senate floor. He sponsored a $30 million voucher pilot plan in 1994.

In 1978, he backed a proposal to offer tax credits to parents who sent their children to private schools, but that year he also voted against direct federal payments to private or religious schools. Mr. Dole revived the tuition-tax-credit proposal in 1983, but his amendment was not enacted.

During his 36-year tenure in Congress, Mr. Dole generally voted in favor of expanded prayer rights in public schools and against increases in federal education spending.

He voted against the creation of the Department of Education in 1979, and has suggested that his voucher program, which would match $2.5 billion a year in federal dollars with $2.5 billion from the states, would be paid for by cutting current federal education programs.

During the primaries, Mr. Dole did little more than echo what other GOP presidential contenders were saying: The Education Department should be abolished, and parents should have more control over education. ("GOP Hopefuls of One Mind on Education," Feb. 7, 1996.)

But after he secured the Republican nomination, Mr. Dole began considering issues that would become central to his general-election campaign.

While a 15 percent tax cut became the centerpiece, other policies also took shape.

Mr. Shea said the campaign tossed around the idea of a school choice proposal as early as last year. Once it became clear that Mr. Dole would be the nominee, the campaign crafted the opportunity-scholarship proposal with the input of several advisers, among them Mr. Alexander and another former education secretary, William J. Bennett.

Moreover, education, which had always been a second- or third-tier issue in presidential campaigns, was holding fast as a top concern of voters in public opinion polls. And after winning the battle with Republicans over the federal budget, President Clinton was beginning to exploit education as an issue and make it his own. ("Cinton Casts Education in Starring Role," Oct. 23, 1996.)

"The whole issue of school choice was framed in the context of opportunity, which is consistent with the Republican Party philosophy," said Milton Bins, the chairman of the Council of 100, a group of conservative African-Americans. "There was a sense that education was important to him, and it was something that would have to be addressed. He was not going to allow himself to be defined just as a person saying no to the Department of Education."

In July, on a campaign swing through the Midwest, Mr. Dole gave two high-profile speeches. In one, he attacked Mr. Clinton as the "pliant pet" of the National Education Association and argued that the union has been an obstacle to school reform. The other introduced his voucher proposal.

He began including the remarks in his stump speech in what analysts saw as an effort to appeal to Roman Catholics, inner city residents, and suburban swing voters frustrated with public schools.

Mr. Dole tied the education themes to his economic message. Through much of the campaign, it has eclipsed other staples of the conservative domestic agenda: opposition to abortion and affirmative action and support for tougher immigration policies.

And when Mr. Dole cited his voucher proposal and scolded the teachers' unions at the Republican convention in San Diego, the audience applauded more loudly than at any other time during his acceptance speech.

Teachers Strike Back

But while his attack on the unions may have won him favor with conservative Republicans, it had side effects. It mobilized teachers and seemed overly threatening to many voters, many of whom saw Mr. Dole's attack on the unions as an attack on teachers.

"Certainly there's no sympathy for big unions in this country, that's pretty clear," said Vince Breglio, a Republican pollster. "But teachers are very much a part of the community, and when you take on teachers, you take on the community itself."

"I don't think there's the type of animosity out there that would prompt that viciousness of attack. If nothing else, teachers vote," added John F. Witte, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "[Ronald] Reagan was not fond of the unions, but you rarely saw him attack like that."

But Mr. Shea, the campaign issues director, defended Mr. Dole's jabs at the unions: "He's telling the truth, so I don't think it's bad policy."

Like his advocacy of vouchers, many conservatives see Mr. Dole's criticism of teachers' unions as important to sustaining the momentum of Republican efforts to shift the education-reform debate. A secondary issue is how many uncommitted voters it might bring to Mr. Dole.

"Voters might not be jumping in the streets with joy about this, but it's certainly resonating, and it's certainly something that they can understand," said Paul F. Steidler, a voucher proponent and senior fellow with the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Va., that has recently begun studying the political power of the teachers' unions.

Nevertheless, the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers brushed off the criticism and went on the offensive themselves. As they have in the past, both unions have worked this fall primarily in support of Democratic candidates, including President Clinton. ("Unions Press Their Point as Election Nears," Oct. 16, 1996.)

Liz Smith, the AFT's political director, said Mr. Dole has done little to sway teachers who were not already registered Republicans. Of the union's 900,000 members--of whom 58 percent are Democrats, 24 percent independents, and 18 percent Republicans--she says about 80 percent plan to vote for Mr. Clinton. Teachers have felt wounded by Mr. Dole's union attacks, Ms. Smith said.

"We're getting letters from people saying, 'How could he? Why did he say that?'" she said.

After Mr. Dole's convention speech, the AFT asked pollsters whether they could find anything in their surveys that would show that voters liked a candidate who would blister the unions. The poll results offered little reason to believe that firing on the unions would turn into votes, Ms. Smith said.

Indeed, since mid-August, Mr. Dole has toned down his anti-union rhetoric while still talking about school vouchers.

His running mate, Jack Kemp, even offered to meet with the NEA.

But after the union extended an invitation to Mr. Dole and Mr. Kemp, the group received only a phone call acknowledging that the letter had been received, an NEA spokeswoman said.

Conservative Opposition

No matter how Mr. Dole's underdog candidacy turns out, voucher proponents say theirs is a long-term strategy, and that Mr. Dole is right not to be driven by opinion polls.

"The political benefit is the benefit you get from doing the right thing," Mr. Alexander said, comparing Mr. Dole's stand on vouchers to President Clinton's targeting of the tobacco industry. "Democrats have traditionally owned the issue [of education] at the national level in political terms. But my view is that doing the right thing is the best politics."

If Mr. Dole is elected, voucher proponents can turn their attention to getting behind his program. If he loses, a "new generation" of voucher proponents will have embraced the idea because of Mr. Dole's advocacy, Mr. Alexander said.

Still, as Mr. Dole's campaign has shown, the matter is far from settled even within the Republican Party, where some who favor little or no federal involvement in schools say Mr. Dole's voucher plan would extend the grasp of Washington.

"A lot of people are expressing misgivings privately, but the party line is to favor [vouchers]," said Douglas Dewey, who worked at the Education Department under Mr. Alexander and who now runs a private scholarship program for poor children in Washington. "The fact is it's very awkward for the conservatives. What are the real goals of vouchers?" Mr. Dewey said. "What do they hope to achieve? Do they want to privatize public education? Do they want some hybrid? There simply is no consensus among voucher proponents.

"What they agree on is a vehicle, not a goal."

Vol. 16, Issue 09

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