“A lot of what this campaign is about is a question of values,” George Bush declared in his very first remarks during last Thursday night’s final presidential debate. And with some 60 million Americans watching, he spent much of the next 90 minutes painting a highly colored portrait of the differences between his values and those of Michael S. Dukakis.
On the death penalty for cop-killers, rapists and drug kingpins, for instance, the Republican standard-bearer asserted: “We just have an honest difference of opinion; I support it and he doesn’t.”
Bush’s debate performance in Los Angeles was only the latest example of how he has used the issue of “values"--the 1988 buzzword for a candidate’s bedrock beliefs--as the mainspring of his front-running drive for the presidency.
And, while Dukakis has denounced Bush’s attacks on his values record as “shameless” and “disgraceful,” the vice president’s success reflects more than a triumph of negative political hucksterism. The so-called values issue poses all-too-real problems for the Democratic candidate and his party.
Some of the difficulty for Dukakis is that his reserved personality and buttoned-down style on the stump inhibit him from spelling out his values in ways that stir voters’ feelings. “He seems incapable of engaging issues emotionally,” says University of Texas communications specialist Kathleen H. Jamieson.
More fundamentally, Dukakis and the Democratic party as a whole are caught in a quandary over values. Dating back to the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s, the party--particularly its liberal wing--became identified with political protest, mostly centered on race relations and the Vietnam War, and with social permissiveness in areas such as crime, drugs and sexual behavior. Those attitudes disturbed many middle-class citizens, who typically form the swing-vote segment of the electorate, and contributed to a record of four Democratic defeats in the last five presidential elections.
Strapped by History
“We’re strapped with a recent history which makes people suspect that we really don’t respect the flag,” says Democratic strategist Michael Ford, a veteran of past presidential contests and a consultant to the Dukakis campaign.
The Democrats are trying to establish a new set of value guideposts to match the era of change they are promising to usher in. But their effort has been marked by ambiguity and uncertainty, underlined by their decision to shrink their 1988 party platform to about one-tenth the size of past platforms.
By comparison, Bush and his Republicans--as defenders of the status quo--have a much easier task, plumping hard for traditional values such as law and order, patriotism and family, which polls show are just as revered as ever.
Throughout the campaign, Bush has hit Dukakis on subjects ranging from prison furloughs and the Pledge of Allegiance to the “left-wing political agenda” of the ACLU and “the federal government licensing grandmothers” instead of leaving child care to the family, as Bush put it.
“I don’t think it’s a question of whether people like you or not to make you an effective leader. I think it’s whether you share the broad dreams of the American people,” the vice president said Thursday, in yet another suggestion that Dukakis is “outside the mainstream” as Bush puts it.
This line of attack was driven home last week in a stump speech for Bush by President Reagan, whose gift for dramatizing the images and symbols linked to values has contributed in no small measure to the GOP advantage in this debate.
“When the left took over the Democratic Party,” he declared, “we made the Republican Party into the party of working people, the family, the neighborhood, the defense of freedom and, yes, the American flag and the Pledge of Allegiance to one nation under God.”
Of course, values and their symbols have always played a part in American political campaigns. In the last century, the log cabin was often emblematic of two national articles of faith--America as a land of opportunity and the virtues of a frontier upbringing.
But several factors have given them special importance:
In 1988, there is no overriding concern such as war or recession to focus voter attention on specific policies.
Also, Bush and Dukakis are still relatively unknown on the national stage, at least so far as their political and personal beliefs are concerned. Thus value-laden images can be an effective way to plant a sense of their personas and beliefs in voters’ minds.
More important, the personal values projected by a presidential candidate are especially important in an era when crime, drugs, divorce and other manifestations of social, economic and technological upheaval seem to threaten the lives of so many Americans.
‘Law and Order’
Thus in 1968, with the nation’s cities torn by racial rioting and anti-war protests, Republican Richard M. Nixon promoted “law and order.” And, in the wake of Watergate, Democrat Jimmy Carter promised Americans a government they could trust.
Bush’s strategists were quick to grasp the potential importance of values in this environment.
Because values pack emotional punch for the voter, says Reagan pollster Richard B. Wirthlin, “values are where the most effective political communication takes place, not just for Bush but for Dukakis.” Bush, he says, is doing “somewhat better” at getting his values across.
That seems to be an understatement.
To be sure, Dukakis has tried to touch these chords among the electorate. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, he resorted to the rhetoric of values in a way that would have done Reagan proud.
“We are the party that believes in the American Dream,” he proclaimed. “What we have done reflects a very simple but very profound idea--an idea as powerful as any in human history . . . the idea of community.”
Proclaiming those values helped make the speech an indisputable success and got Dukakis’ candidacy off to a flying start.
But it soon became apparent that the nominee had little interest in developing and pursuing these themes. Instead, he adopted a restricted view of the campaign dialogue, which he had also revealed in that same acceptance speech. “This election isn’t about ideology,” Dukakis asserted. “It’s about competence.”
Although Dukakis had placed great stress on the importance of family as an institution, his main solution to the child-care problem was to endorse “in concept” a plan by congressional Democrats to provide federal financial support for parents who send their children to licensed day-care centers. That proposal died earlier this month in the Senate.
Bush, criticizing Dukakis for leaning too heavily on the federal bureaucracy, offered instead a plan relying mainly on a $1,000-per-child tax credit for low-income families, who could then spend the money as they saw fit. Although the proposal meant that very low income families, who pay little taxes, would not benefit greatly, the proposal was in keeping with Bush’s backing for “traditional” family life style. Parents could get the credit even if one stayed home to take care of the children.
Most of the debate over values has been conducted in far harsher terms, without benefit of specific policy proposals.
Bush’s decision to attack Dukakis on values dates to last spring. Dukakis was trying to move away from traditional Democratic liberalism toward the political center, and Republican strategists concluded that they could use his record in Massachusetts to stop him.
The GOP built its case around a series of simple examples--Dukakis’ veto of a bill requiring teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, his “card-carrying” membership in the American Civil Liberties Union and the weekend furlough granted under Massachusetts law to convicted killer Willie Horton, who then brutally assaulted a Maryland woman and her fiance.
Bush himself has stressed the prison furlough episode. “Clint Eastwood’s answer to violent crime is: ‘Go ahead, make my day,’ ” Bush told a recent campaign rally in Ft. Worth. “My opponent’s answer is slightly different. His motto is: ‘Go ahead, have a nice weekend.’ ”
Democrats charge that Bush and his surrogates have grossly distorted Dukakis’ values.
Willie Horton, they say, was a rare exception to an otherwise successful program, similar to those in many other states. Dukakis’ Pledge of Allegiance veto, they add, was on sound constitutional grounds and did not prevent Massachusetts schoolchildren from reciting the pledge but merely protected teachers from being compelled to lead it. And many distinguished Americans, including former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, have praised the work of the ACLU.
But whatever excesses Bush may have committed, some analysts fault Dukakis for his weak defense of himself.
For example, when Bush raised the pledge issue, Dukakis resorted to a legalistic defense that he was bound by an advisory opinion that the law was unconstitutional. He could have made a more dramatic and compelling case for the right to dissent by citing a historic Supreme Court decision that struck down just such a law as the one he vetoed.
“Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much,” former Justice Robert Jackson wrote in that 1943 opinion. “That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”
Instead of meeting Bush’s challenge on values head-on, Dukakis initially produced a series of commercials attacking the Bush campaign for “packaging” its candidate.
“Like the rest of the Dukakis campaign, those commercials are too defensive,” complained Bob Garfield, critic for the trade journal Advertising Age. “Here is a man who says the key to dealing with the Soviets is acting, not reacting. And he’s right, so why can’t he do that with his own campaign?”
Starting to Do It
Some analysts, citing a speech on values that Dukakis gave Oct. 8 at Maine’s Bates College, believe he is beginning to do just that.
With his mother by his side, Dukakis called for renewal of “our commitment to basic American values.” Alluding to the scandals that have tarnished the Reagan Administration, he said: “We need a government that not only enforces the law, but that obeys the law.”
And, responding to Bush’s “outrageous” contention that he lacked concern for the victims of crime, Dukakis cited two particular victims--his father, who was robbed and tied up in his office, and his 43-year-old brother, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver.
“I don’t need any lectures from Mr. Bush on crime fighting or on the sensitivity of compassion we must extend to the victims of crime,” he declared.
Some Democrats hailed this as a sign that their candidate had finally come to understand the need for personal and emotional rhetoric to affirm his own values. What no one could yet tell was whether Dukakis had reached this realization too late.
Staff writers David Lauter and Cathleen Decker contributed to this story.