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THE EVIL OF TWO LESSERS

<i> William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion</i>

Last week, the presidential candidates decided to treat the country to an edifying debate on national security.

George Bush aimed the following illuminating inquiries at his opponent, Michael S. Dukakis: “Are you now willing to say that you support the American action that liberated Grenada? Do you now support the air strike on Libya as a way of teaching Kadafi a lesson? Are you now willing to admit that your support for a nuclear freeze was a mistake?”

Dukakis took on the complexities of trade, terrorism and drug trafficking. “In each of these three areas, George Bush has failed,” the Democratic nominee contended. “I want to beat our foreign competitors; he’s willing to settle for second place. I want to crack down on terrorism; he knuckled under to the ayatollah. I want a real war against drugs; his answer to drug kingpins like Noriega is J. Danforth Quayle.”

This is not an election. It is an anti-election. So far, the best thing Bush has going for him is Dukakis, and the best reason to vote for Dukakis is Bush.

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When it comes to personality, neither candidate is a day at the beach. Both are awkward campaigners. Bush can be relied on to say something foolish at least once a week; if it’s not pork rinds, it’s Pearl Harbor. In Dukakis’ case, George Will has observed that never in the history of American politics has a candidate been in such desperate need of anecdotes. Both men have a difficult time connecting with ordinary voters.

This race has no Dwight D. Eisenhower, no John F. Kennedy, no Ronald Reagan to attract voters with charisma. Instead, what passion we see is negative. It is not the voters’ fault. Polls reveal that the voters do not have an especially negative view of either Bush or Dukakis. Now that the two conventions are over, each candidate is unfavorably regarded by about 30% of the public.

The reason for the negativism is simple: Neither candidate has much else to say. There is only one real issue in this campaign--the federal budget deficit--and neither dares to talk about it. Bush doesn’t want to call attention to Reagan’s biggest failure, and Dukakis remembers what happened when Walter F. Mondale tried to run on the deficit issue four years ago.

In 1980, the issues were clear. People were angry about inflation and military weakness. They voted for change. In 1984, the issues were also clear. People were happy with the economic recovery and with the new sense of national pride. They voted for continuity.

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This year, nothing is clear. We have peace and prosperity, yes, but voters are uneasy about the future. A few months ago, people seemed to be opting for change and Dukakis was riding high. Since the GOP convention, continuity has become fashionable and Bush has made a comeback. Voters could go either way.

Dukakis’ big mistake was to rely on Bush’s negatives. He assumed that as long as Bush’s unfavorable ratings were more than 40%, Reagan’s job approval rating was no higher than 50% and two-thirds of the country said they wanted a change of direction, he could not lose.

That assumption was correct. What happened is that Republicans went on the offensive and changed the conditions. Bush ran a spirited negative campaign against Dukakis, calling him a Massachusetts liberal. It was hard for Dukakis to deny--he is a Massachusetts liberal.

Then the GOP convention became a week-long advertisement for peace and prosperity, reminding voters how much better things are since 1980. Reagan’s approval rating jumped to nearly 60%. Bush’s negatives dropped. And the desire for change--Dukakis’ strength--began to diminish. “We are the change,” Reagan told the convention, and many Americans apparently believed him.

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Dukakis tried to remain above the fray. In fact, he went invisible. After all, he won the primaries as the “remainder man.” He watched other candidates either self-destruct (Gary Hart, Joseph R. Biden Jr.) or destroy one another (Richard A. Gephardt, Albert Gore Jr., Jesse Jackson). Dukakis just picked up the pieces and walked away with the nomination. Now Dukakis thought he could sit back and watch Bush destroy himself. He would collect the remainder--the presidency.

But Bush did something no Democrat did. He went negative. He attacked Dukakis where Dukakis least expected--on his values. Bush used symbolic issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and the prison furlough program to show that Dukakis’ liberal values were out of touch with most Americans. It worked. Last week, a Gallup poll found that, by 2-1, the public said they thought less of Dukakis as a result of the pledge issue.

No one had ever challenged Dukakis’ values. Liberal values are not controversial in the Democratic Party. And they are no big issue in Massachusetts either. The fact is, Dukakis has never run against a serious conservative Republican. His GOP opponents in Massachusetts have been either liberals or nonentities.

Right now, the objective factors in the campaign--peace and prosperity--continue to favor Bush. The subjective factors--the images of the two candidates--used to be strongly favorable to Dukakis. Now they are about equal. The candidates are also about equal in the polls.

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Dukakis finally figured out that he had to go negative on Bush. If Bush attacked his values, he could attack Bush where Bush was most vulnerable--his judgment. This is a vice president who toasted Ferdinand E. Marcos’ commitment to democracy, who wanted to make a deal with an indicted drug-trafficker in Panama. And this is a vice president who went along with Iran-Contra. “We now know that (Bush) was fully briefed on all aspects of the transaction,” Dukakis said last week. “He had an opportunity to advise the President and he did advise the President. And he was disastrously and completely and unforgivably wrong.” How’s that for being judgmental?

Like Reagan, Bush does not always have good judgment when it comes to the people around him. Bush allowed characters with anti-Semitic pasts to work for his campaign. Above all, he picked Quayle as his running mate. What does that say about Bush’s judgment?

Going negative on Bush is a lot more promising than going negative on the Reagan record. The worst mistake Dukakis could make would be telling people how bad everything is. Dukakis likes to say the 17 million jobs Reagan created are not good jobs. But how many people like to be told their jobs stink? The Democrats are already running TV commercials that talk about the nation’s “sham prosperity.” But to most people, sham prosperity is better than what they had under Carter.

Every now and then, a few positive campaign messages creep out. In his acceptance speech in New Orleans, Bush talked about making America “a kinder, gentler nation"--presumably kinder and gentler than Reagan’s America. But he has not spelled out what he would do, most likely because that would mean breaking with some of Reagan’s policies. Moreover, Bush’s vision of a kinder, gentler nation has certainly not been evident in his savage attacks on Dukakis.

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Dukakis sees himself as the candidate of the future, someone who can make the economy stronger and more competitive. Instead of talking about the deficit--a real downer--Dukakis talks about using government creatively to stimulate economic growth. He used to do it by referring to the “Massachusetts miracle.” That image is not holding up, however. Massachusetts is having budget difficulties, and Dukakis was embarrassed by polls last month that showed a dead heat in his home state.

Dukakis needs a vision. He needs a bold program aimed at increasing investment, improving educational excellence and stimulating productivity. His student loan program is a good start, but it is less a vision than a scheme. You use a scheme to solve a problem. You use a vision to create commitment. Dukakis, like most problem-solvers, needs to understand that commitment comes first.

As the campaign goes on, the candidates will probably talk less about visions for the future and more about each other. In other words, things are likely to get uglier. That may turn off a lot of voters but in the end, somebody will have to be elected President. How do voters decide between two negatives? Veteran GOP strategist Stuart K. Spencer, who is now advising Quayle, probably had the right idea when he said in a recent interview, “This election is going to come down to who makes the last mistake.”


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