In the wake of Vice President George Bush’s “victory” in last Thursday’s nationally televised debate with Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the governor’s only chances for victory now lie in an unexpected Bush illness, big mistake or personal scandal. If presidential politics were the World Series, Dukakis would now be trailing, three games to zero, with the next game on Bush’s home field.
But if it’s all but over for Dukakis in this presidential election, it is not all over for the Democratic Party or for Dukakis as a leader within it. His behavior over these three weeks will have a lot to do with determining his own and his party’s future and the political policy terms of reference during the next four years.
Facing long odds, will Dukakis spend the next three weeks in a proud and positive campaign on behalf of the constructive liberalism he’s always stood for? Or, as he seemed to do last Thursday, will he try to run from the liberal label and his past record and, as he did while campaigning last week, resort to appeals to jingoism and scare tactics about Social Security in a desperate grasp at political survival?
Faced with a similar decision four years ago, Walter F. Mondale chose the former course and went down with his flags flying. Although beaten overwhelmingly, he left the field with his integrity and dignity intact. He almost certainly will return to the U.S. Senate in two years as an effective spokesman for his views of a lifetime.
Before he finally commits himself to a course of action, Dukakis should recognize that, given current peace and prosperity, the American people clearly are not prepared to put their present governance in the hands of an activist agent of change--or, for that matter, in the hands of any Democratic challenger to the popular Reagan regime. Yet, just below the surface, the same electorate increasingly is anxious about its economic future. Even the most complacent voter knows, on one level or another, that the present eight-year, bought-on-credit binge will soon have to end and the due bill paid. When this anxiety--rather, this recognition of reality--overcomes present satisfaction, people will be all too ready for change.
It is Dukakis’ bad fortune to be running one or two years ahead of the right time (just as it was Jimmy Carter’s good fortune to be running in 1976 at precisely the right time). If Dukakis can see this, it should be easier for him to carry a straightforward, progressive message to the people from now until Nov. 8 and not lose any sleep over the might-have-beens. If, however, he misreads the situation and believes that in three weeks’ time he somehow can make himself over or find some magically successful, if irresponsible, new campaign themes, he will discredit both himself and his party.
When the election is over, Democrats will engage in another of their quadrennial takings-of-stock. It is easy to predict that if Dukakis imitates the jingoistic campaign theme of Rep. Dick Gephardt earlier this year, the black, liberal and other core constituencies of the party will feel betrayed and will be further inclined to move hard left in the future with the Rev. Jesse Jackson or some other standard bearer who will not leave them and their concerns out of his equation. Party conservatives will undertake polarizing activity of their own and seize on some new scheme, comparable to their 1988 Super Tuesday Southern and border-state primary plan, designed to fight off a liberal coup and put the party in their safer hands.
Voters, in response, will properly conclude that all that internal bickering simply proves that Democrats are still too flaky and rowdy to trust with presidential power.
But the policy damage of Dukakis demagogy would be even deeper than the political damage. Early in 1989, both Democrats and Republicans will face the overwhelming imperative of responsibly reducing federal budget deficits without choking off present economic growth. To bring that off will require sacrifice and statesmanship not only of the new President but of both political parties in Congress (not to mention the American people).
If Dukakis makes a frantic reach for protectionism, or frightens senior citizens about their Social Security, he will have contributed immeasurably to the difficulty in 1989 of framing responsible and enlightened national policy.
In the 1988 nominating process, Mike Dukakis fended off advice that he take political cheap shots on trade policy and other issues having to do with the country’s basic economic health by saying that he intended to stay honest with himself. Now, with the loss of the presidential election over the horizon, Dukakis needs more than ever to stick to long-held principle.
It is hard to lose. But it is better to lose on one’s own terms than on alien ground. Dukakis can realize that he was right the first time; he can be the real Mike Dukakis and let the chips fall where they may.