For eight years the Democratic Party panted for an opportunity to run against Reaganism without Ronald Reagan on the ballot. Now they have their desire--only to be reminded that few things are more dangerous than getting what you wished for.
What chastens Democrats is not only the substantial lead that Vice President George Bush has amassed heading into the final two weeks, but how he built it. Bush has caught and passed Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts largely by eliminating personalities from the campaign and reducing the race to a generic contest: Reaganite Republican vs. Northeastern liberal Democrat.
It will be difficult for anyone to say a Bush victory was a triumph of personality--this is still a man who often seems to be running for president of a yacht club--or even of tactics. Throughout, Bush unreservedly, even tauntingly, labeled Dukakis as a liberal while proudly identifying himself with Reagan. If Bush wins the election, no one could maintain that his message had no impact on the outcome.
With his wan managerial rallying cry--"This election isn't about ideology. It's about competence"--Dukakis tried to convince voters that their choice should hinge on the personal characteristics of the two nominees, not the basic philosophic differences between the parties. That strategy assumed the public simply wouldn't buy Bush.
Also aware of the public's uneasiness about Bush, the vice president's campaign flipped Dukakis' proposition. Since the Democratic National Convention, Bush made the race very much about ideology--and convinced voters to see the candidates' personal characteristics as an extension of their political beliefs. Bush clarified his own fuzzy ideological profile by offering continuity with Reagan's policies--albeit while promising to sand down the harsh edges to create a "kinder, gentler nation," more concerned about ethics, education and the environment. And he remade Dukakis--who portrayed himself in Atlanta as a pragmatic, penny-pinching moderate too tight-fisted to replace his snow-blower--into a McGovernite liberal. As a result, the candidates enter the last turn less individuals than the embodiments of contrasting philosophies.
Bush ruthlessly pushed Dukakis to the left with symbolic social issues--his opposition to the death penalty, his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, his support of gun control and his veto of a Massachusetts bill requiring teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Adding these social concerns to the usual GOP charges that Democrats are big-spenders and soft on defense, the Bush campaign was able not only to define Dukakis as a generic liberal, but to define liberalism in the worst possible light.
Strategists on both sides agree that Bush was helped greatly by Dukakis' decision to resist the liberal label--evident by his squirming in the second debate--rather than defend it. Dukakis' approach to domestic problems does depart from liberal orthodoxy in a reliance on the private sector and a reluctance to spend public money. But those deviations from the faith may not be as meaningful to voters as they are to Harvard political scientists. On social and foreign policy issues, Dukakis' basic approaches are, by any definition of the word, liberal.
Dukakis has neither spelled out his differences with liberalism nor gloried in its egalitarian traditions; he has just recoiled, like a vampire from a cross, whenever the word is raised. "If he admitted he was a liberal he would be better off than he is now," insisted James Pinkerton, the Bush campaign's director of research. "He not only lost points on ideology; he lost points on trust."
By casting the race as a choice between competing values, Bush has the best of all worlds. Focusing attention on Reagan's economic and arms-control successes, he tethered himself to a tradition more buoyant than any Democrat expected. At the same time, by forcing voters to view the candidates through an ideological lens, Bush wiped out Dukakis' early summer advantages on measures of personal strength. Dukakis would now lose a race about competence too: His personal negatives--driven up by the GOP's relentless ideological attacks--significantly exceed Bush's.
If Dukakis is to come back--or at least shave Bush's lead--his best hope is to exploit generic advantages that Democrats still hold over the GOP. Admittedly, Reagan has attenuated those as well. Reagan has bequeathed Bush an opulent patrimony: The GOP now holds a substantial lead over the Democrats as the party best able to ensure both peace and prosperity.
But the Democrats still hold their traditional advantages as the party best able to protect the environment and cope with unmet social needs--such as day care, sheltering the economically vulnerable and defending the middle class. That suggests Dukakis' only hope in the remaining weeks is the kind of class-based populist appeal he has drifted toward as all else has failed.
If even that argument falls short, as most Democrats fear, the party faces several serious questions. Most pressing is whether a large Bush victory will imperil the Democrats' eight-vote advantage in the Senate; Democrats are defending 18 Senate seats, the GOP only 15.
Analysts in both parties do not yet see anything developing like the deluge of 1980, when Reagan's decisive victory swept the GOP to a stunning 12-seat gain and Senate control. Al Jackson, political director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, a leading liberal PAC, said, "1980 seemed to be a wholesale rejection of (incumbents). That's sort of the opposite of what is happening this year, in the sense that people are opting to stay with the status quo." GOP challengers to Democratic senators in such presidential battlegrounds as Ohio and New Jersey still seem too far behind to benefit from all but an overwhelming Bush victory.
But it's too early to say for sure. The 1980 Senate landslide only developed in the campaign's final days. If the presidential race is influencing Senate contests, the effect may be discernible first in Florida, where the Democrats are trying to retain an open seat, and in Nevada, where Democratic Gov. Richard H. Bryan is trying to unseat Chic Hecht, the GOP's weakest freshman. A strong Bush showing would also reinforce the Republican hand in Mississippi, where GOP Rep. Trent Lott leads in the battle for an open seat, and in California, where Sen. Pete Wilson is fending off Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy; and it could conceivably boost Republican Sen. David K. Karnes of Nebraska against popular former Gov. Bob Kerry. A Bush tide could also produce marginal GOP gains in the House of Representatives, particularly in suburban districts.
Even the prospect of congressional losses doesn't trouble Democrats as much as the implications of another potential wipeout in the presidential race. It can be argued that Dukakis failed to defend liberalism adequately, that he suffered from uniquely personal faults as a campaigner, that his Massachusetts record saddled him with burdens no other Democrat will have to bear and that the economy's strong performance left him with no realistic chance from the outset.
All that may be so. But Bush's ideological attacks would not have worked so well had they not struck a nerve: The doubts many middle-class voters hold about the Democrats' underlying cultural values. "That is the Democrat Mt. Everest, the hurdle they have to climb in every national election," said Stuart Rothenberg, director of the conservative Free Congress Center for Government and Politics. Those symbols have cut particularly sharply in the South and West, reinforcing the GOP's fortified electoral-college base in those states.
If Dukakis doesn't recover to beat the man Democrats once yearned to face, the party will split into two camps. One will maintain that the Democrats lost because Dukakis wouldn't stand up as a real liberal; the other will contend that the party failed because it nominated another Northeasterner who, despite his protests, championed liberalism. The first track leads the party to future nominees such as Jesse Jackson, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts or Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York; the second bends toward a Southerner, such as Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia.
It's a sobering thought that the Democrats engaged in exactly this debate four years ago, after Reagan blew away Walter F. Mondale. The muddiness of Dukakis' message stands as a reminder that the party's re-examination never produced conclusive results. Now, burdened by past failure, the Democrats are facing another election day with results that may be all too familiar.