From the perspective of a professional debate referee, perhaps Michael S. Dukakis won on points. But this was not a professional debate. It was an opportunity to clarify political positions before a large national audience. And to this end George Bush scored effectively. My impression was that Bush won politically. And his relaxed, if at times slightly awkward, demeanor probably won him more friends than Dukakis won with his sardonic smile.
Dukakis' problem is that the liberal position that he espouses is not particularly popular with the American people. And Dukakis seems to know this. That is why he is uncomfortable when the subject of liberalism comes up. Politically, it is not easy to defend. On the other hand, Bush's mild conservatism is fairly popular with the voters. To score political points, therefore, Bush only had to describe Dukakis' liberalism. And he did. As a friend of mine put it after the debate, we found out more about Dukakis from Bush than we did from Dukakis.
"Peter, please understand," Bush said at one point to ABC-TV anchorman Peter Jennings, "the liberals do not like me talking about liberals." A few weeks ago it was suggested in the press that Bush's use of the phrase "card-carrying member of the ACLU" (originally used by Dukakis to describe himself) somehow smacked of McCarthyism. The charge of McCarthyism used to mean calling a liberal a communist. Now it seems to mean calling a liberal a liberal--which is absurd. Nonetheless, when the subject of the ACLU came up again Sunday night, Bush effectively showed why it is that the ACLU-style liberalism is unpopular ("I don't want to see 'Under God' come out from our currency") and why Dukakis was incautious in associating himself with the organization.
Dukakis tried to rebut the vice president by saying that he resented the questioning of his patriotism. The problem was that by this time Dukakis had already made a serious error of political judgment in defending his veto of a Massachusetts bill that would have required teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance by appealing to the superior authority of the state's judiciary. It was not his patriotism that was under suspicion. It was his deference to courts rather than to the people's representatives in the legislature. In Sunday night's debate, Bush struck a more sensible note when he said, "You see, I'd have found a way to sign that (Pledge of Allegiance) bill. Gov. Thompson of Illinois did."
It was to his credit, in a sense, that Dukakis did not try to budge his opposition to the death penalty--not a popular position, exactly. But once again, surely, Bush was the political winner. The difference between the candidates on the very divisive issue of abortion was also established for the record. In this instance, however, Bush sounded an uncertain trumpet.
On several other issues Bush was weak, in a me-too kind of way. At one point, for example, Jennings asked why, if Bush was so "haunted" by inner-city lives, had so many programs "designed to help the inner cities been eliminated or cut?" Bush might have responded that programs designed to help may in reality be the cause of inner-city misery. Instead he showed himself to be a good "pragmatic" Republican, tolerant of liberal premises about helping the poor by income redistribution, wishing only to do so less generously than the Democrats. It was Dukakis who was the more outspoken about "helping families get off welfare." Ironically, however, he also complained about the Republicans having "cut and slashed and butchered" government programs, creating the suspicion that all he really had in mind was to increase them.
On defense and foreign-policy questions, Bush probably came out slightly ahead, but not by much. Dukakis tried to make too much of Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama and the Reagan Administration's undoubted blunder in dealing with Iran for U.S. hostages. On the larger and far more significant issue of national security in the years ahead, the average voter might reasonably have concluded that Bush was the more reliable candidate.
It's worth noting that all this year the Reagan-Bush Administration has been vulnerable to a rightward move by the Democrats on the national-security issue. Bush continues to embrace a potentially hazardous 50% reduction in our strategic nuclear arsenal, which could entail sending half of our nuclear submarines to the scrap yard. Some Republicans this year have worried that a Dukakis move to the right on this issue, in effect denouncing the proposed deal, could be devastating to the GOP.
On both of the most recent occasions when the Democrats have reclaimed the White House from Republican incumbents (in 1960 and 1976), the Democratic candidate made such a move: John F. Kennedy campaigning against the "missile gap," and Jimmy Carter correcting Gerald R. Ford's misunderstanding of the Soviet domination of Poland.
But Dukakis has shown no such inclination to move to the right this year, and in failing to do so he may well have allowed the Republicans to retain their lease on the White House.