Michael S. Dukakis had his best chance to turn the election around Thursday night, when he squared off with George Bush for the second and climactic presidential debate of the 1988 campaign. And he blew it.
Dukakis did not lose on debating points. As in the first debate on Sept. 25, the Massachusetts governor was a skillful debater who scored a number of direct hits against Bush. Bush won the debate where it mattered, however--on themes.
Dukakis should have learned something from the first debate: If you win the debate on points, you don't get the presidency of the United States as a prize. Dukakis honestly seems to believe that these really are debates. They are not. They are marketing opportunities.
The debates allow each candidate to appear before a national audience and make the case why he should be elected President. In both debates, Dukakis showed a superior grasp of issues. But Bush had a superior understanding of the thematics of the 1988 election.
Bush's message was reassurance. In fact, Dukakis did a good job of summarizing the Republican theme in his closing statement, when he said, "Our opponents say, things are OK. Don't rock the boat. Not to worry. They say we should be satisfied." Dukakis' message was bracing and cautionary. At least six times during the debate, he talked about the need to make "tough choices."
The American people are being asked to choose between a candidate whose theme is, "We're all right, Jack," and a candidate who says, "Eat your broccoli." Guess which they prefer? According to a Los Angeles Times poll taken just after the debate, viewers thought Bush won by a 21-point margin, though Bush went into the debate only a few points ahead.
Throughout the campaign, Dukakis has faced a formidable obstacle: Things just aren't that terrible for most Americans. Most parts of the country are doing fairly well economically, and things are looking up in areas that have been hurting.
Moreover, remarkable things are happening all over the world. Peace is breaking out everywhere--Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War--and democracy is on a roll--Burma, Chile, Yugoslavia, even the Soviet Union. U.S.-Soviet relations are better now than they have been at any time since World War II.
The bottom line in the election is: It is difficult for a party to lose when it has a President with a 60% job-approval rating. Bush and Dan Quayle are rather weak candidates. But they are running on a strong record. Bush was right when he said in the first debate that there are "three candidates" on the GOP ticket. Those candidates are Bush, Quayle and Ronald Reagan. Reagan is the one winning the election.
Dukakis had to do two things in last week's debate. He had to make the case for change. And he had to convince the voters that Bush was the riskier choice.
Dukakis surprised a lot of viewers by not being more aggressively negative in his treatment of Bush. Instead, he treated the vice president with disdain: "I don't know which George Bush I'm talking about or looking at." He said, "I think the presidency of the United States is a very serious office, and I think we have to address these issues in a very serious way." Implying, of course, that he doesn't think Bush is very serious.
That same tone of mocking contempt is visible in Dukakis' anti-Bush TV commercials, which feature a particularly goofy photograph of the vice president. A recent skit on "Saturday Night Live" captured this point perfectly: A cast member playing Dukakis listened to Bush prattle on and then said, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."
But he is--in part because Bush takes Dukakis very seriously. His anti-Dukakis ads depict the Democratic nominee as a menace to the republic. They close with the question, "Can we afford the risk?" over music that sounds a lot like the theme from "Jaws."
Bush makes his point by repeatedly calling attention to Dukakis' liberal values. In fact, last week's debate may have been decided by Dukakis' answer to the first question. He was asked whether he would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife.
His answer was strikingly unemotional: "No, I don't . . . . I've opposed the death penalty nearly all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime."
Dukakis might have gotten away with opposing the death penalty as a matter of principle. But he opposed it on practical grounds. And on that issue, he is far outside the mainstream of U.S. public opinion--78% favor the death penalty for those who commit murder, according to a poll taken this month.
Throughout the campaign, Dukakis has made two assumptions: The voters see Bush as a joke, and the need for change is self-evident. Both assumptions seemed to be true as recently as three months ago. But they are not true now. The polls since July reveal a sharp surge of confidence in the economy and optimism about the future. The generally good news has been one factor. But Reagan and Bush did a good job of selling the themes of peace and prosperity during and after the GOP convention.
Why should people vote against peace and prosperity? Why should they take a chance on something different? Dukakis never answered those questions in the debate. Apparently, he didn't feel he had to. Dukakis' great weakness is that he is not a thematic politician. He is all management. In the debate, instead of making the case for change, he simply assumed it.
He said, "Tough choices will be required, choices I am prepared to make and Mr. Bush is not prepared to make." He said that Bush's pledge of "no new taxes, period," wasn't "realistic" and promised, "I am going to be a President who is serious." He warned, "We cannot continue to tell the American people that we're going to build all these (weapons) systems and at the same time, invest in important things here at home." "There are limits to what we can spend," the candidate admonished briskly. "We can't do it all."
Dukakis' message was that he was better qualified to make the "tough choices." Bush's message was, "What tough choices?" "I am optimistic and I believe we can keep this long expansion going," said Bush. This sounds perfectly appropriate coming from a man whose favorite song is the current pop hit, "Don't Worry, Be Happy." "I was not out there when that stock market dropped, wringing my hands and saying this was the end of the world as some political leaders were--because it wasn't the end of the world."
Bush scoffed at Dukakis' plan to "unleash an army of Internal Revenue Service agents into everybody's kitchen" to enforce tax compliance. And he asked viewers to "consider the experience I have had in working with a President who has revolutionized the situation around the world."
Dukakis did manage to draw blood several times during the 90-minute confrontation. When challenged on his environmental record, he said, "George, Boston Harbor was polluted for 100 years. I'm the first governor to clean it up. No thanks to you." And he got right to the heart of the abortion issue when he said, "Who are we to say that under certain circumstances, (abortion) is all right but under other circumstances it isn't? That's a decision only a woman can make, after consulting her conscience and her religious principles. I hope that we give women in this country the right to make that decision."
And Bush did manage to say his usual quota of silly things. When asked about the sleaze factor in the Reagan Administration, Bush said, "It's a disgrace, and I will do my level best to clean it up, recognizing that you can't legislate morality." And he may have written off Idaho's four electoral votes by promising to build a nuclear power plant there.
But the prize for nastiness goes to Dukakis, who insinuated that Robert H. Bork and Quayle were lacking in integrity. Bork was rejected by the Senate for ideological reasons, not for reasons of integrity. Quayle is having problems because of his poor qualifications, not his poor character.
In the end, Bush's answers seemed more deeply felt. He warmly endorsed Dukakis' family values and saluted his commitment to public life. When Dukakis was asked who the heroes are in American life today, he listed categories of people ("doctors and scientists," "classroom teachers"). Bush named real human beings (Jaime Escalante, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Reagan).
Bush did take one big risk during the debate. He ruled out any more debates with Dukakis saying, "The American people have had it up to here with debates." It's hard to tell people they've heard everything they need to hear about the candidates. But Bush and Dukakis have been saying the same things over and over for three months. Last week's debate made the choice about as clear as it is likely to get. We know that Bush thinks Dukakis is a liberal. And we know that Dukakis thinks Quayle is unqualified. Please don't say it again. When it comes to debates, the American people have enjoyed about as much as they can stand.