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Favors Problem-Solver Approach : Dukakis Believes America Seeks Activist Government

Times Staff Writer

“America,” Michael S. Dukakis likes to say, “is ready for activist government.”

Eight years after Ronald Reagan summed up his philosophy of government by saying: “Government is not the solution; government is the problem,” Dukakis has based his Democratic presidential campaign on the assumption that the country once again wants problem-solvers in Washington.

Dukakis’ performance as governor of Massachusetts provides some clues about the kind of government management he would practice if elected. His own leanings, and the constraints imposed by the budget deficit he would inherit, mean that his style would be noticeably different from the Washington activism that was the hallmark of administrations of past Democratic presidents such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter.

Although Dukakis often has been vague about exactly what solutions he would offer, he has laid out an ambitious agenda:

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--Guaranteed health insurance for all citizens, modeled after a state program that he calls his “proudest achievement” as governor.

--An expanded federal role in helping parents find day care for their children.

--Job-training programs, again modeled on a successful Massachusetts effort that attempts to get welfare mothers off relief rolls and into jobs.

--And last week, in the most detailed proposal so far, an education loan program that would make federally guaranteed low-interest loans available to all college students.

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As a governor who has often chafed at orders from federal officials he disagreed with, Dukakis repeatedly expresses a preference for letting state, rather than federal, officials take the lead in implementing policy. In addition, Dukakis and his advisers know that the massive Reagan-era federal budget deficits and lingering public distaste for expansive federal regulation largely rule out major new federal spending programs.

What Dukakis offers to avoid those problems is a version of what policy analysts have come to call “leveraged liberalism"--the use of government leverage to direct the energies of the private sector toward achieving public goals.

‘Catalyst for Change’

The idea at its core is simple. Government, through the person of the chief executive, should “act as a catalyst for change” rather than “doing it all,” said John Sasso, Dukakis’ former Statehouse chief of staff who now serves as vice chairman of the campaign. The job of the man in charge is to work, in effect, as a deal maker and “bring the affected parties in . . . and work out a consensus.”

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It is an approach that has been widely used on the state level--in Massachusetts and elsewhere--for a decade. On the federal level, however, even close Dukakis aides concede that they have no model for how, or even whether, the approach would really work.

As with most administrations, much is likely to depend on the people Dukakis surrounds himself with. In all three of his terms as governor, Dukakis has received high marks for appointing bright, capable administrators. In his first term, however, his staff lacked people who had much political sense, and a stubborn Dukakis made a series of politically unpopular moves that cost him reelection in 1978. After he regained office in 1982, his record has been much better, a change for which Sasso receives substantial credit.

Innovative Solutions

The results often have been impressive. Although Dukakis’ role in the state’s progress has not been as dramatic as some of his campaign literature maintains, the state has been at the forefront in developing innovative solutions to complex problems. Some of the programs illustrate the approach Dukakis would attempt to bring to Washington if he prevails this fall.

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On health care, for example, Dukakis has said he would seek a federal program that would follow the outlines of Massachusetts’ new comprehensive health insurance plan. The plan, which was enacted last year and began to take effect just last month, requires most employers who previously have not offered health insurance to begin doing so. It also establishes a state fund that will provide insurance to the unemployed and people in job-training programs.

The program achieves a Democratic goal of universal health care for all citizens, which dates back to the Truman Administration, and it exemplifies some of the hallmarks of Dukakis’ style. By requiring employers to offer new benefits, for example, it shifts a substantial burden from the state government to the private sector.

Views of Opponents, Backers

Dukakis’ opponents, particularly in the small-business community, argue that the program discourages business investment in the state. The governor’s supporters argue that the fears of the business community are overstated and that the system is fairer and more efficient than a new government program financed by tax revenues.

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The program’s cost to the state government remains disputed. Critics predict that even with business carrying the largest share of the cost, the program will still require taxpayers to put up millions of dollars. Dukakis and his aides argue, in contrast, that the program will end up saving taxpayers money. They offer two major reasons.

First, Dukakis says, fear of losing health benefits for children is the “single biggest barrier” preventing mothers from getting off welfare, where they receive Medicaid benefits. Allowing people to keep health coverage if they leave welfare will encourage thousands more people to go to work, he argues, saving welfare costs while increasing tax revenues.

Emergency Room Care

Second, poor people without health insurance tend to be heavy users of expensive emergency room care, imposing a burden on hospitals that the hospitals eventually collect from the government--through Medicare and Medicaid--and from everyone else in the form of higher health insurance premiums. Once those people have insurance, Massachusetts health planners argue, they will be more likely to visit clinics before they become grievously ill, saving money in the long term.

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On economic development, the Dukakis Administration has used a variety of state carrots--including direct grants, land purchases and allocation of state funds for building garages near proposed industrial parks--to channel new jobs to high-unemployment areas of Massachusetts. The skills involved have been those of a corporate deal maker than the more traditional exercises in legislative lobbying and public persuasion that most presidents have concentrated on.

As President, Dukakis says, he would employ a similar approach, convening regional economic development conferences--he long ago pledged that the first one would be held in Iowa--at which state, local and federal officials would sit down and discuss what steps need to be taken to revive the economy in areas that have been lagging.

In economic development and other fields, such as education, Dukakis says he would seek to have the federal government set basic goals and provide incentives. The bulk of policy implementation, however, would be left at the state level, he insists.

But skeptics say--and many Dukakis aides concede--that his style could be far more difficult to implement on Capitol Hill than it has been on Beacon Hill.

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In Washington, one senior Dukakis aide noted, the President is faced with “entrenched vested interests"--alliances between lobbyists, bureaucrats and legislators--on a scope that far exceeds anything on the state level. Many of those groups for eight years have resisted Reagan’s attempts to shift authority out of Washington to state governments. Part of that resistance came from opposition to Reagan’s conservative goals, but much of it was a fight over bureaucratic and legislative turf that a Dukakis Administration’s proposals could trigger as well.

In addition, the isolation in the Oval Office that seems a built-in disability of the modern presidency would probably be an especially serious problem for a hands-on, deal-making chief executive of the sort Dukakis likes to be.

Held to Be Often Stubborn

“There’s a tendency when you’re no longer calling the guy Michael, but Mr. President, that you bring good news into the office,” one of Dukakis’ former top officials said. That could be a particular problem for Dukakis, who, even his close friends say, is an often stubborn man who is loath to concede that a course of action he has embarked on is not working.

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And once removed from Boston, where his long years in politics have given him a keen appreciation of who the key players are and an extensive network of people to keep him informed about how state programs are running, Dukakis’ instincts for the right levers to pull could suffer. As governor, for example, Dukakis always has insisted on being driven to state functions outside Boston by local friends, rather than state troopers, giving him half an hour or 45 minutes to be briefed on conditions in the area. Presidents seldom have such luxury.

Some of the other concerns about his management style that Dukakis critics have raised seem less serious when his record is studied in detail. One case in point is the frequent comparison of Dukakis and Carter, another governor who came to the White House with little exposure to Washington and with a reputation for being arrogant and reluctant to deal with the horse-trading and backslapping side of politics.

Dukakis Governor for Decade

But, although Carter rose rapidly from the county school board to the governor’s mansion to the White House and arrived in Washington with fewer years’ involvement in government than any President in half a century, Dukakis has been in the midst of politics for nearly 30 years and has been governor of one of the nation’s most populous states for a decade.

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Whereas Carter was widely criticized for being unwilling to delegate authority--personally keeping track of such minutiae as the scheduling of the White House tennis courts--Dukakis receives high marks from current and former state officials for giving them extensive authority to make decisions on their own. And whereas Carter often seemed unable to set priorities, one of Dukakis’ strengths as a manager has been his ability to pick out a few goals and pursue them to completion without being distracted by other objectives.

In a recent interview with The Times, Dukakis acknowledged that isolation is a problem he might face as President, but he insisted that he is prepared to handle it. Isolation “is a danger as governor as well,” he said. “I am somebody who does not like sitting around the office. As governor, I’m out and around the state. . . . I think you would see me doing a lot of that” from the White House.

Sessions With Officials

Reporters covering the Dukakis campaign already have. Although some candidates revel in trading war stories with local politicians and others seem to draw strength from the adulation of cheering crowds, Dukakis’ idea of a good time is to sit around a table discussing public policy with elected officials and their staffs. Nearly every week in the campaign he has scheduled at least one such event, often to the despair of campaign advisers, who know that such sessions almost never yield the sort of attractive television coverage that campaigns aim to get.

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For Dukakis, however, such sessions are a tonic and a source of ideas. The nuts and bolts of implementing policy have been a lifelong vocation for him, and he enjoys talking about them. “He learns much more from experience than from experts,” Sasso said of his boss. “He likes people who have been tested in the political arena . . . people who have had to stand up to voters and explain themselves.”


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