The post-debate campaign for the White House is turning out to be more balanced on the give-and-take between the two presidential contenders and more focused on the future--but just about as negative as it was before Sunday night’s televised clash.
Some striking developments apparent on the hustings this week can be traced to the debate. In that encounter Democrat Michael S. Dukakis took the full force of Republican George Bush’s attack on his record and values, which had dominated the opening phase of the campaign. And by most reckonings, Dukakis gave at least as good as as he got, and emerged battered but unbowed.
“How many of you saw the debate?” Dukakis asked the enthusiastic crowds that greeted him wherever he went on the day after the debate at Winston-Salem, N.C. “How many of you liked what you saw?”
Invariably, the Massachusetts governor got the cheering affirmation he hoped for. Whether or not it turns out that in the long run Dukakis actually did best Bush, the fact remained that as a result of the debate, for the first time since the Democratic convention last July, Dukakis supporters had something to cheer about.
‘Blood in the Water’
“The Democrats saw Bush reeling, under fire, a little blood in the water,” said conservative analyst Kevin Phillips. “And Bush’s blood has not been in the water for a while.”
But more important than just encouraging his own partisans, Dukakis’ performance in the debate was strong enough to free him from the constant burden of defending himself against Bush’s attacks, Democrats say. Now they contend their candidate is better positioned to reach out to the uncommitted middle-class voters whose ultimate decision is expected to decide this closely contested and volatile election--and to fire some shots of his own at Bush.
“We’re going to do some heavy contrasts with Bush,” says Dukakis communications director Leslie Dach.
“Up to now Dukakis’ campaign has been almost entirely responsive to Bush,” says Democratic pollster Ed Lazarus. “Now he has as good a chance as Bush to shape the agenda.”
Dukakis aides say their candidate will now ask voters, particularly middle-class voters, to look ahead, and to look at the solutions Dukakis will offer to the problems they will face.
“The post-debate campaign is going to be about the big-ticket items--housing, education and health care,” says Dukakis’ man Dach. Dukakis, who even before the debate had laid out plans to guarantee health insurance for all employees and to help college students get loans, began putting more stress on these proposals this week.
And on Monday, Dach says, Dukakis will present an additional initiative along these lines--a plan to help middle-class families become homeowners.
Meanwhile, in addition to these pocketbook measures, Dukakis this week unveiled a plan for raising ethical standards in government by tightening restrictions on lobbying by former government officials.
As for Republican strategy, campaign aides say that Bush is shifting gears from his early intense concentration on trying to define his Democratic opponent as “outside the mainstream” through such symbolic issues as the Pledge of Allegiance controversy.
“After the convention we felt we needed to heighten the contrast and sharpen the differences between the two candidates,” says James Pinkerton, research director of the Bush campaign. “Now we believe we should try to establish a positive tone.”
“It’s time for him (Bush) to move on to something else,” says Richard B. Wirthlin, President Reagan’s chief pollster who also does some polling for the Bush campaign. “His major task is to outline a credible program for the future.”
And Bush took a step in that direction this week when he proposed a new tax break intended to encourage middle-to-low-income persons to save money so they can “become better able to afford a home, pay for college or start a business.”
None of this is to suggest that the negative tone so pervasive in the campaign’s early stages will vanish now.
Indeed, both of the candidates have fired off some nasty shots since the debate. Bush warned the citizens of Minonk, Ill., that his opponent intended to unleash “an army” of tax collectors on them and their fellow Americans.
And Dukakis, in proposing a lobbyist crackdown, tossed off a heavy-handed allusion to Reagan Administration aides who have broken laws by telling a rally in Greensburg, Pa., that Bush “may be satisfied with letting Japan make the cars while his former colleagues make the license plates. . . . We can do better.”
One reason that negative tactics persist is that they often make compelling sound bites on television news programs. Another explanation is that the huge federal budget deficit and the electorate’s seeming suspicion of big government discourage the candidates from offering programs that have a realistic chance of helping alleviate the serious problems voters face.
In a sense, the post-debate negative campaigning represents another way of talking about the future. Dukakis’ thrusts are intended to convince voters that Bush, as a patrician Republican, would be indifferent to the problems they face while Bush’s barrage is designed to stir uneasiness about Dukakis’ supposedly excessively liberal inclinations.
GOP pollster Wirthlin cites survey data that shows that by a 2-1 margin voters worry that once in power, the Democrats rather than the Republicans are more likely “to make too many changes too quickly.”
And so the purpose of Bush’s pounding away at Dukakis, Wirthlin says, is to persuade voters that the Democrat “would induce change that would be disadvantageous or hurtful.”
But political professionals warn that if the candidates know what’s good for them they will hold such attacks to a minimum. “They have to resist the temptation to beat the hell out of Bush,” said Democratic pollster Ed Reilly, of the Dukakis campaign. Even though such attacks may pay off in the short run on television, Reilly warns that in the long run they will distract attention from what should be Dukakis’ main argument--"that he has an activist program and plan for dealing with the future.”
It is time for both candidates to “take the high road,” contends Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden, who believes that negativism is useful, but only up to a point. “You damage your opponent, but then after he is bloody you step back and say to the voters: ‘I’m your man.’ You can’t end a campaign on a negative note and be successful.”
Whether their tactics are negative or positive, whether they are trying to rouse hopes or stir fears, each candidate is striving to look ahead and, just as important, to persuade voters to accept the view of the future that will suit his own political advantage.
Here are the contrasting perspectives:
--Progress versus stagnation. This is the way Dukakis advisers want voters to look at the choice in November. “He (Bush) stands for the status quo and we stand for change,” says Dukakis’ aide Dach.
“The choice is clear,” says Richard Moe, another Dukakis adviser. “If you’re content with the way things are, you vote for Bush. If you are worried about the future, buying a house or educating your kids, then you vote for Dukakis.”
Naturally, that is not the way Bush partisans look at things. Wirthlin points out that in his speech to the GOP convention President Reagan declared: “We are the change"--words that Bush himself echoed during Sunday’s debate.
“We have a lot more proposals out there than some people realize,” contends Bush research director Pinkerton.
--Liberal versus conservative. Convinced that the country has moved right under Reagan, the Bush campaign believes that if voters accept this ideological framework for viewing the election, Bush is certain to win.
“There are two big truths about this election,” says Pinkerton. “One is that Bush is a thoughtful and substantive man and the other is that Dukakis is a thoughtful and substantive liberal.”
The debate underlined that distinction, Republican strategists argue. “Dukakis won the debate in the short run,” argues David Keene, GOP consultant. “But he lost in the long run because he defined himself as a liberal by the way he presented his views.”
But the Dukakis camp rejects this juxtaposition: “Look at the proposals Dukakis has made,” says Dach, who argues that most of the schemes Dukakis has developed shy away from past liberal reliance on big government programs.