Unleashing weeks of pent-up outrage, vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen on Tuesday delivered the Democrats’ most furious response yet to Republican attacks, charging that the GOP had turned “a great national election into a carnival sideshow of nonsense and negativism.”
“They don’t seem to mind if what they say is untrue,” Bentsen told students at UCLA. “They don’t seem to mind if it’s misleading. They don’t seem to care that what they do is downright mean.
“It’s just the kind of half-baked proposal that they dish up in the name of debate. If it sounds good, say it. If it sells, package it. If it looks good, nominate it.”
Flashes of Anger
Bentsen had previously shown flashes of flinty anger at the reluctance of Democratic campaign strategists to lash back, but had kept his public response measured, in step with the official line crafted by the Dukakis campaign’s Boston headquarters. “At times,” he acknowledged again Tuesday, “we’ve been slow to answer back.”
But, he continued: “I don’t think we ever imagined that George Bush and the Republicans would be so willing to debase that precious currency of our democracy by conducting a campaign that resembles a demagogic race for county sheriff instead of President of the United States.”
The force of his speech suggested that the campaign--or at least Bentsen’s half of it--has decided to mount a determined effort to turn the Republicans’ attacks against them by contending that such an “utterly vicious assault” violates the “sacred trust” of the democratic system.
Calling the Republican strategy “one of the most outrageous displays of negative campaigning seen in the history of presidential politics,” Bentsen said: “They’ve said things about Michael Dukakis that they wouldn’t say about a rattle snake on a lawn at a church picnic.”
Asked why such a message was being voiced by Bentsen, Press Secretary Mike McCurry said only that Bentsen “wanted to speak what was on his mind.”
Indeed, after traveling advisers drafted the speech, Bentsen himself added strong language claiming that Republicans “panicked” after early polls showed Vice President Bush running far behind Dukakis.
“Their image-makers came in and said: ‘Don’t you worry about that. Wait till we get through with Mike Dukakis, spend millions of dollars on television cutting him up.. . . Then we’ll turn to a campaign of sweetness and light and take it on home.”
Bentsen had earlier indicated to reporters that he wished Dukakis had responded sooner--both in person and with television advertising--to what he termed “character assassination” by the Republicans. But when pressed to elaborate, the courtly senator laughed off his remarks as mere “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”
Appearing with Bentsen later Tuesday, Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn endorsed the new free-swinging approach, saying: “The Democratic ticket has got to hit hard, and you’re going to hear from a fellow who knows that politics is a contact sport.”
‘Watch His Lips’
Borrowing a line from legendary Louisiana politician Earl Long, Nunn said of the Republican Party: “You watch that fellow and you watch his lips. When his lips move, he’s lying. So we have gotten down to that stage of the campaign.”
Bentsen maintained his fiery new tone throughout a day of California campaigning, beginning with a speech in San Diego to a meeting of the League of California Cities in which he raised the specter of economic decline under Republican stewardship.
A Dukakis Administration, he pledged, would not allow America to become “hewers of wood and carriers of water for the rest of the world.”
And at UCLA Bentsen denounced “the so-called experts” who he said had “pointed to an open casket in the ground and virtually invited us to jump into it.”
“Let me tell you,” he said, “they haven’t heard the last from Mike Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen. . . . There’s no time for mourning because we’re going all out to win this election.”