Saxophone Vs. Sacrifice

WILLIAM SAFIRE SAID IT FIRST, AS HE so often does. On Feb. 1, The New York Times columnist predicted that Bob Dole would be roughed up in the early primaries, but finally emerge as... The Comeback Adult. A sly bit of generational denigration, but lost in the haze of battle until early March, when a sign appeared at a Maryland rally, DOLE THE COMEBACK ADULT. There have been other such signs since. "It's catching fire," said a Dole staffer, hopefully. That's probably an exaggeration. There is no aspect of the Dole campaign that is even vaguely incendiary; it is a more gravimetric phenomenon. But the intention is both clever and clear: to make the campaign a choice between experience and callowness, between sacrifice and self-indulgence, between the most heroic American generation of the century and the most coddled, between the Comeback Adult and the Comeback Kid.

It may be Dole's best chance to win: to turn this election into a referendum on baby-boom leadership. "It's a situation unique in American history," says William Strauss, coauthor of the book "Generations." Torches have been passed, from one to the next, but never before have two such distinct generations clashed so directly-and never has the torch been passed backward. It will be a generational rematch, of course. But 1992 seemed a more familiar sort of politics, the youthful upstart (Clinton) challenging the political establishment in the midst of an economic recession, promising a more vigorous future. This year is different, darker, less hopeful. This election is more likely to be a judgment on the past four years, on the quality of Bill Clinton's leadership. A Dole victory would mark the restoration of a generation that held the presidency longer-for 32 years, from Kennedy to Bush-than any other in American history. And the conclusion would be unavoidable: the baby boomers weren't ready for power and, addled by affluence, may never be.

"You're overreaching," Newt Gingrich says. "This is about two distinct men, not two generations." But Gingrich also believes that generations do have distinct characteristics, and that the baby boomers-he counts himself one-are the "most self-indulgent in history. Partly because of their numbers, they have defined every moment of their lives around themselves." Dole's generation didn't have the luxury of self-definition. "They were defined by a series of unifying experiences that were communal and sacrificial," says William Galston, communitarian thinker and former Clinton aide. "Most of them suffered through the Depression. Most of them served in World War 11. And they experienced the sudden, surprising postwar affluence together, too."

"Your boomers have never really known apprehension," says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. "They've never known real fear. Bob Dole represents people who never knew peace. They confronted direct threats to the central institutions of our society, which tended to concentrate the mind. These young people know nothing of that, and it shows in how careless they can be about the policies they propose. Bob Dole proceeds more carefully, one day at a time. He doesn't ask for dramatic changes, like tossing the tax code into the air and snatching out a single page. Some of the newcomers, especially in the House, are so sure of themselves and know so little. They just chill your butt."

THIS IS THE STRONGEST ARGUMENT FOR DOLE. "I'VE been tested and tested and tested," he says, again and again and again. "I won't lead you off a cliff," he says. And he won't. Bob Dole represents qualities that seem to have vanished in the cross-fire of modern American dirtball politics: moderation, patience, a respect for tradition. His Senate colleagues rhapsodize about his courtesy and his rationality. There may well be a public yearning for such qualities, after the Clinton tumult. There is certainly a nostalgia for the simple (if constrictive) verities that obtained in Bob Dole's America. "Dole's generation emerged from the war and Depression with a sense of moral superiority," says Sen. Bob Kerrey, a decorated Vietnam veteran. "Our generation experienced something far more ambiguous. I mean, was I right about Vietnam, or was Bill Clinton? You could argue it either way."

And this is the essence of the case against Dole. His lifetime has prepared him for compromise, but not for ambiguity -- and ambiguity is, arguably, at the heart of the American condition as the millennium approaches. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Dole was ridiculed for saying he didn't realize that "trade and jobs" would become a major issue this year. But why should he have "realized" that? The economy is in fabulous shape, compared with the horrors he experienced living in a Kansas basement during the Depression (it's in fabulous shape compared with any other country in the world right now, for that matter). But there are ambiguities, and anxieties. The New York Times spent much of last week murdering trees for a series promoting the questionable notion that corporate "downsizing" was a major national crisis. It isn't. A crisis is when significant numbers of people lose their jobs, not when they worry about losing them (and far more good jobs have been created than lost in the past decade). Still, a febrile, media-magnified anxiety about job stability and wage growth is integral to the civic topography that the next president must address and palliate. It will take a fair amount of blab to calm things down -- and perhaps a few marginal government programs. That is the essence of leadership in a wired, combustible culture. And the blab is a skill far more common to Bill Clinton's generation than to Bob Dole's.

For good reason. The boomers were, and are, a generation afflicted by the luxury of choice. Choices want discussing; choice is the mother of ambiguity. "Dole's generation faced very clear challenges," says Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam hero. "The baby boomers were tested in a less obvious way. They faced the challenge of temptation. I mean, what was the worst thing you could do when Bob Dole was growing up in Russell, Kans.? Knock over outhouses? Boomers had to make decisions on drugs, on personal morality, on whether to go to Vietnam. Don't kid yourself. That was a difficult course to navigate. In some ways, it was more challenging than what Dole's generation faced."

It was certainly more insidious. But then, affluence -- a level of economic security unknown in human history -- has defined Bill Clinton's generation. It has been an unprecedented social experiment: can a society whose broad middle class has been liberated from want and war remain cohesive without the discipline of belligerence or privation? Daniel Yankelovich, the opinion researcher, believes the impact on American culture has been immense, and has come in three stages. The first stage, dominated by Dole's generation, was the belief that the good fortune couldn't possibly last. "Values remain conservative . . . The focus is on social bonds, sacrifice, hard work and saving for the future." In the second stage, which Yankelovich believes arrived in the late 1960s as the boomers attained majority, people began to assume the good fortune was permanent. "They believe they can indulge themselves . . . and their nation can now spend freely without worrying about tomorrow." The third stage, which settled in as growth flattened during the Bush presidency, was the fear that affluence was about to be lost. "People begin to feel cornered and disoriented. They realize they had better begin to think about tomorrow once again."

Bill Clinton's 1992 theme song was "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)." His campaign was all about soothing the renewed anxieties Yankelovich describes. But Clinton began his presidency in an undisciplined, incautious "second stage" fashion. He proposed an extravagant health-care plan inappropriate to the straitened national mood. He could not make up his mind about Supreme Court justices or Bosnia (though he eventually came out well on both). He talked publicly about his underwear. Over time, he has developed a better sense -- or maybe just a better pitch -- when it comes to the intense "third stage" desire for a return to stability. The president no longer describes himself as an "agent of change." He was schooled in this, inadvertently, by the most recent crop of radicals, the GOP revolutionaries of 1994. He and Dole, thus, have a lot in common (truth be told, they also aren't so far apart on the issues). Which is why the campaign is likely to be fought on the less substantive, but juicier, terrain of generational politics.

"My fear is that the campaign will be the last food fight between the baby boomers and their parents -- Vietnam, long hair and marijuana all over again," says Richard Thau of Third Millennium, a nonpartisan Generation X social-policy organization. "This election should be about us and our children, about the future." Good luck. It's more likely to be about the past -- not just the recent past (Bill Clinton's stewardship), but a struggle for the hearts and minds of Bob Dole's generation, who remain chronic voters (and mostly Democrats). Both Clinton and Dole find their strongest support among older people. Clinton regained much of his popularity this past year by creating, and grossly exploiting, the fear that congressional Republicans were intending to demolish Medicare. It won't be so easy to do that against Dole, even if the Kansan did proudly vote against Medicare back in 1965. Dole will always be able to say, "Mr. President, do you really believe I'd deny my friends and classmates and fellow veterans the medical care and pensions they paid for and deserve?"

DOLE'S CHALLENGE, AND OPPORTUNITY, WILL BE TO play on the self-doubts of baby boomers -- who suspect Clinton isn't grown up enough to be president -- and to reach past them to Generation X, which has been agnostic in recent elections. "There's a natural affinity between us and our grandparents," Thau says. "Younger people would really respond if Bob Dole said, "I'm going to ask my generation to sacrifice one last time for their grandchildren, and really reform entitlements like Medicare and social security'."

Clinton's challenge, and opportunity, will be to convince a skeptical public that he has suffered and grown these past few years, and has abandoned his adolescent belief in the unlimited efficacy of government. "Clinton grew up in a time when people believed government could fix anything," Kerrey says. "Even anxiety. Government could cure anxiety. Wouldn't it be great if he could just get up and say: a certain amount of anxiety is good for you. It keeps you on your toes, makes you work harder, save money . . . I mean, Bob Dole had to collect money from his neighbors [for his postwar operations] in a cigar box."

Kerrey's asking a lot. But it would be nice to think that Dole and Clinton might set aside matters of generational style, and really try to address the concerns of an enervated nation, addicted to affluence and fearing withdrawal. If they don't, there will be another candidate ready to step into the breach: Ross Perot, who is neither boomer nor World War II vet, but the least quiet member of the Silent Generation, those born between Clinton and Dole -- a generation that has not yet had a president to call its own. Perot will not win this election, but he could serve a useful function. He could force the Comeback Kid and the Comeback Adult to stop bickering about the past, and start a realistic debate about the future.