Attack of the Policy Nerds : Dukakis Only the Latest to Come Up Bloodless

<i> Ross K. Baker is a political science professor at Rutgers University</i>

There was a moment of incandescent opportunity for candidate Michael S. Dukakis in Thursday night’s debate. It was a glowing instance that can only be likened to the one in late innings of a crucial baseball game when a pitcher uncorks a slow pitch right at the letters that can be hit into the upper deck--if only the batter can connect. ABC correspondent Ann Compton threw Dukakis such a fat marshmallow that it should have had him swinging for the fences. Instead, the mighty Duke struck out.

Compton’s question had to do with heroes. With the characteristic Dukakis grimace that suggested he’d just eaten a bad meal, the governor first said that he had to reach back into history to find some heroes and then lamely suggested that a few might be found in the ranks of contemporary members of Congress and among governors. She wanted him to name names, to reach back for a moment into the blur of the past two years of campaigning and tell us about someone whose hand he had shaken or shared a meal with.

It was not until the next round of questions that Dukakis could come up with the name of the family on Long Island that took in their married children who could not afford a home of their own--but by that time the magic moment had passed.

It was a question that Compton would never have asked of Ronald Reagan; for him it would have been a dish of red meat. But asked of Dukakis it revealed a man so oriented toward policies and programs that he had trouble finding a human context for them. Reagan might have had only the dimmest notions of laws and regulations but his repertoire of human-interest anecdotes was always at the ready.


George Bush had the advantage at the debate of responding to Dukakis’ reply and was able to come up with Jaime Escalante, the Los Angeles high school math teacher whose work with inner-city children was dramatized in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” and anti-Castro resistance hero Armando Valladares. He answered the question the way it needed to be answered. But Bush was not the one suffering from the reputation of being overly intellectual and detached.

This problem of appearing to be fascinated with policies but indifferent to the people whom those policies affect is one that is hardly restricted to Dukakis, however. It has come to burden some of the most personable and humane people in public life. And it is, pre-eminently, a Democratic problem.

The paradox of the bloodless Democrats first struck me in 1984 while preparations were under way in both the Walter F. Mondale and Reagan camps for the second debate. Mondale had scored impressively against a seemingly muddled and irresolute Reagan in the first debate. Having worked for Mondale when he was in the Senate and knowing his wry, self-deprecating humor, I was hoping that the former vice president would use the second debate to let that warmth and geniality come through. But as I watched Mondale emerging from the seclusion of a briefing session in the company of two of the campaign’s most starchy and humorless aides, I knew that Mondale would never rise to the occasion.

What I was witness to was the attack of the Democratic policy nerds. They are the creatures who dwell in Washington and some of the more important state capitals who drain the blood from their candidates and make them into stern and forbidding bureaucrats--whose regulatory interpretations are usually correct but who suffer from a grave and cheerless idiom. With the naturally somber Dukakis, the apparent inability initially to come up with someone other than a politician who might embody heroic qualities tagged him as the political counterpart of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” He was the one who sat by the door and meticulously copied documents.


Why, when it is clear to almost everyone that Americans do not want a bookish bluestocking in the Oval Office, does the socially conscious Democratic Party come up with candidates technically proficient in their grasp of policies yet unappealingly denatured?

The answer lies in the Democratic constituencies in the presidential primaries that force the party hopefuls to submit to a kind of political inquisition that Republicans never seem to undergo. Republican voters seem to be content with some broad brush strokes or the utterance of a few reassuring incantations. Democrats vet their candidates mercilessly on their mastery of policy and demand of them a degree of specificity on the issues that makes dialogue with anyone but an insider almost impossible. Whether it was “notch babies” in Iowa concerned about a technicality in Social Security eligibility rules or the politically correct position on comparable worth or the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for drugs to fight AIDS, the well-informed and relentless Democratic voter gradually strips Democratic presidential hopefuls of dash or sweep. When a candidate is by nature somber, the process renders him pedantic and narrow. The policy experts who thrive in this milieu and hover around Democratic candidates would serve them better if they could come up with some good jokes and fewer mind-numbing statistics.

A candidate from the party out of power needs extraordinary characteristics to mount a challenge in times of peace and at least arguable prosperity. Outstanding human qualities and an ability to strike some responsive chord deep in the souls of Americans and to link up with them spiritually are more important than meticulous policy analysis. If the Democrats should have learned anything from Ronald Reagan, it is that American voters are more likely to be wooed and won by the candidate who charms them a little more than the one who gives them impeccable data.