Dukakis Evokes Quayle Name as Stump Speech Evolves
A new name has crept into Michael S. Dukakis’ standard stump speech of late, that of the No. 2 man on the opposition ticket, whom Dukakis now invariably refers to as J. Danforth Quayle.
It has not been ever thus. For the first two weeks after Quayle was picked at the GOP convention in mid-August, Dukakis simply avoided mentioning Vice President George Bush’s running mate. Then, for about a week and a half, belittling references to “Dan Quayle” started appearing in Dukakis’ speeches. In recent days, the reference has evolved a little more, reaching its present stage of contemptuous ridicule.
None of this is accidental, of course. In the annals of literature, a presidential candidate’s standard stump speech holds a special place. Never have so many worked so much on so little.
Along with the campaign advertising, the standard speech is the basic medium through which campaigns hope to convey a candidate’s message. It is repeated hundreds of times to--by the end--millions of potential voters. And in the long course of the campaign, the speech goes through a slow evolution as it is worked over by pollsters, pundits, consultants and sometimes even the candidates themselves.
The changes reveal the twists and turns, the contradictions and the false starts that the candidates have encountered in their search for the catchy phrase or the dramatic slogan that might suddenly grab the attention of an electorate that, so far, remains uninspired by its suitors.
For Dukakis, a look at the standard speech explains some of what has gone right--and a lot of what has gone wrong--with his year-and-a-half-long quest for the presidency.
Hits Main Theme
On the bright side, the speech is designed to hit, and relentlessly hammer home, the main theme of Dukakis’ candidacy: that America needs new leadership to make its economy competitive for the 1990s. Dukakis’ advisers make no attempt to be coy about how essential that argument is to their candidate. “If the economic argument doesn’t sell, we lose,” communications director Leslie Dach said recently.
On the grim side, however, the speech clearly has not been working well of late, and Democratic advisers, consultants and strategists have a laundry list of reasons why. The most basic reason, most say, is that the speech has changed little since the Democratic primaries, but the race has.
Dukakis’ speech, said one prominent Democratic consultant, who asked not to be identified to avoid alienating Dukakis’ advisers, almost always, “willy-nilly works its way back to ‘competence,’ ” the issue that Dukakis campaigned on during the primaries and the one that he put at the center of his convention-night acceptance speech with his declaration that “this election is not about ideology, it’s about competence.”
But competence is by nature not an exciting thing, and in any case, polls show, voters simply do not believe that Bush is incompetent. And despite virtual unanimous agreement among pollsters and consultants on both sides that the Democrats’ strongest case would be to focus voters’ attention on the future, the word “future” almost never appears in Dukakis’ speech. Until recently, when he unveiled a new plan on college loans and outlined his positions on defense, Dukakis’ speech included almost no specific proposals that would say what he might do as President. Those sort of proposals are risky, and Dukakis’ candidacy so far has been risk averse.
On the attack, where Bush seems to have developed a relish, Dukakis remains awkward. Bush’s attacks on Dukakis can stir his partisan audiences into a cheering fervor. Dukakis, by contrast, includes the Democrats’ favorite attack line--"Where was George?"--in most of his speeches, but generally stands wooden and still when his crowds chant back.
The Quayle references are an example of the steps Dukakis’ speech writers have taken to try to sharpen the speech and get more excitement into it.
Originally, Dukakis was reluctant to talk about Quayle for fear of being drawn into debate over Quayle’s service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, an emotional issue on which many voters have mixed feelings. As attention began to turn away from the Guard and toward Quayle’s limited record of achievements as an Indiana senator, Dukakis began to talk more freely about Quayle, questioning his qualifications.
Over the last week, however, Dukakis’ own polls, as well as polls by other organizations, have shown that voters--even Bush supporters--have doubts about placing Quayle “a heartbeat away” from the presidency. Dukakis has responded to those findings by tuning his speech a little sharper, attacking Quayle more directly and referring to him daily with his full middle name--Danforth--rather than the more colloquial Dan.
At its core, Dukakis’ speech can be divided into several sections, each one highlighted with an “applause line” that is designed to crystallize the essential message.
In summary, the sections run something like this: Republicans have betrayed the average American; the reason Republicans have done so is that they are the party of the rich and don’t understand the problems of average people; Dukakis does understand and will make the average person’s lot better.
The first section of the speech describes what Dukakis calls the “middle-class squeeze.” It culminates with a line he repeats at almost every campaign stop: “For the past seven years, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer, and the middle class--and that means most of us--are getting squeezed.” The difficulty with that line of argument, analysts say, is that it can appear to be an attack, not on Bush, but on President Reagan, whom the Democrats have twice been unable to beat.
The second section of the speech is more sharply directed against Bush. Dukakis tells his audiences, for example, that Bush’s chief economic proposal is a capital gains tax cut that would amount to a $30,000 tax break for people earning more than $200,000 a year. In addition, he says, Bush several years ago called U.S. economic relations with Japan “superb” at a time that Japan was steadily building its economic advantage over American industries. The culmination of that section of the speech is Dukakis’ call for “economic patriotism.”
The final section, the one designed to show that Dukakis understands the problems facing the country and has proposals to solve them, is the one that is most heavily criticized by people outside the Dukakis campaign. Dukakis has several issues to choose from, talking about education at some stops and about drugs or job training or health care or the environment at others. This past week, in a rare foray, he has talked about national security and defense.
But while each of those interchangeable sections has good applause lines, none yet has offered the sort of consistent theme that could propel the campaign forward and drill its message into voters’ consciousness. He has been giving his speech for 18 months, but, even Dukakis’ own aides say, most voters still do not know who Michael Dukakis is or what he has to say.