Republican Avoids Specifics on Issues : Attacks on Dukakis Dominate Quayle Speeches
It is Dan Quayle’s clarion call, declared at every campaign event as he roams across the nation, rallying Republican troops: Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis is afraid of the issues and he and George Bush are out front on them.
“We have the ideas!” he thunders from the podium. “We have the power of ideas!”
But as much as he trumpets ideas and issues, Quayle’s approach has been increasingly dominated by his scathing attacks on Dukakis.
With few exceptions, the GOP vice presidential nominee’s approach on issues has been high on slogans and shy on specifics, a strategy popular among candidates for national office this year. In Quayle’s case, aides suggest he is trying to avoid politically dangerous turf and miscues that would embarrass his running mate, George Bush.
Provides No Specifics
In an interview last week, Quayle declined to detail specific positions on a host of issues, among them what programs he would target for budgetary cutbacks, what level of funding he would recommend for one of his pet projects, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and what solutions he would endorse for the violence-wracked West Bank.
But Quayle has shown increasing success with one specific effort--the vice presidential nominee’s traditional role of hard-charging attacks on the opponent. He has unrelentingly criticized Dukakis on the litany of issues in which Republicans see the Democratic nominee as vulnerable--taxes, the environment, defense.
“There’s a lot of things we can refer to the man from Massachusetts as,” he said Saturday night, speaking outdoors in a driving rain at Republican Sen. John W. Warner’s Virginia farm. “We can call him Mr. Tax Increase. We can call him Mr. Polluter. We can call him Mr. Weak on National Defense.
“But let me tell you something. Come Nov. 8, there’s one thing we’ll never call the governor of Massachusetts--and that is ‘Mr. President.’ ”
Even Democratic protesters, who have heckled Quayle at every recent campaign stop, have felt his quick wrath. In Albuquerque last week, Quayle screamed until he was hoarse--but virtually silenced the taunts of Dukakis backers and drew enthusiastic applause from his supporters.
“As you listen to this babble over here,” he said, his voice rising and his arm flinging in the direction of protesters at the New Mexico State Fair, “you can’t help but think of the Dukakis positions. They have no positions! They’re loud but they don’t have any ideas! We’re the party of ideas!”
Shades Past Record
To his political advantage, Quayle has shown a skilled ability to dodge specifics or even shade his past record in order to curry favor with voters.
In Oklahoma, for example, Quayle suggested that he and Bush would be better for the weakened, oil-dependent economy because the Republicans favored tax benefits for domestic producers, including the repeal of the windfall profits tax. A Quayle aide confirmed later that while in the Senate, Quayle voted for the tax.
In Ohio, Quayle took on an issue of grave importance in the Industrial Belt--his opposition to legislation requiring employers to give workers 60 days’ notice before plant closings. Although Quayle on the Senate floor pronounced broad objections to mandatory notification and said the requirement would “stifle the growth” of the economy, he skipped over those objections when addressing the matter before dozens of metalworkers.
“By golly, they ought to get notice. No one’s opposing notice,” he said, adding that “the problem” was a provision of the legislation dealing with length of layoffs.
One pronounced attempt to generalize came recently when a Chicago questioner asked for a detailed solution to the violence in the Israeli-held territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Indiana senator, in response, said that “hopefully, some of the political problems can be resolved” if the United States continues to make clear its commitment to Israel.
“The way we’re going to bring peace in the Middle East first and foremost is to let everyone know in no uncertain terms that our closest ally and friend--and always an ally and friend--is Israel,” he said.
Tries to Avoid Mistakes
A Bush campaign aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said later that Quayle, on the subject of Israel and other topics, was trying to avoid making mistakes as he learns his running mate’s positions on a host of issues.
“No VP nominee wants to walk into territory that creates problems,” the aide said. “He’s being careful. I don’t believe it reflects a lack of knowledge.”
Indeed, Quayle has approached with more specificity the areas where Bush’s positions are well known, although those areas are largely used to jab Dukakis.
On defense, while criticizing Dukakis as a defense neophyte, Quayle has underscored Republican support for the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative.
But in an interview, he declined to specify what sort of fiscal commitment he thought was appropriate for SDI.
“I think instead of numbers, I want to see where the program’s going to go,” he said. " . . . The most important thing is to continue moving toward testing of an SDI system.”
Speaks of Drug Policy
Similarly, Quayle routinely tells audiences that Republicans will wage war on drugs through interdiction--the current policy of intercepting drug imports--education and strict law enforcement. But the subject is usually a means of criticizing Dukakis for objecting to the Republican-supported death penalty for “drug kingpins.”
Quayle does not specifically say how he would improve on Reagan Administration anti-drug efforts, and also refused to say whether Panamanian leader Manuel A. Noriega, now under indictment for drug trafficking, would qualify as a “kingpin.”
“I don’t have--it’s for the courts to determine,” Quayle said.
On the overriding subject of the economy, Quayle has vocally supported Bush’s concept of a flexible freeze to curtail government spending. Under the freeze, the overall amount of spending would be held level, but funding for individual programs could be increased or decreased so long as the total spending stayed the same.
Quayle, in an interview, declined to say which programs would be cut to offset the ticket’s proposed increases in spending for education, the environment, AIDS research and other programs.
“I don’t have a laundry list, but obviously when you get around to submitting a budget and you have to put in some of the new programs we’re talking about . . . some (other programs) will be frozen and some may be reduced,” he said.
Expected to Speak Out
Aides suggest that as the Indiana senator adjusts to a national campaign, he will more forcefully and definitively speak out on the issues, while leaving the bulk of the policy pronouncements to Bush. “In the stretch he’s going to be a formidable campaigner,” said one of Quayle’s senior advisers, Ken Khachigian. “Symbolically, he’s the future standing right up there.”
Indeed, as a five-day trip across the Midwest ended on Friday, Quayle displayed more ease than he had in previous days. In Overland Park, Kan., he entertained the crowd with humorous responses to some questions. He also offered a well-received, pragmatic defense of the proposed balanced budget amendment, telling his audience that it would give worried legislators “political help and insulation” against criticism from interest groups affected by budget cuts.
He also generated warm applause in his response to a question posed by an audience member who said she was unsure whether he was prepared to assume the presidency, if necessary.
Quayle noted that then-Sen. John F. Kennedy was “almost my same age” when he ran for the presidency in 1960. “I’m willing to put my legislative accomplishments and my legislative record on the table and compare (them) to his,” he added.
Then, true to form, he segued into an attack on Dukakis.