In 1980, and again in 1984, the Democrats ran against Reaganomics, which promised prosperity without pain. Both times they lost, and, by 1988, most pundits expected they would have learned their lesson. Instead, they again seem destined to lose to the Republican candidate by an electoral-college landslide. How it might have gone otherwise will be the object of study for years to come, but it is not too early to say that for Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, this was a campaign of missed opportunities.
Former President Richard M. Nixon said recently that Dukakis’ advisers had to be “geniuses” to squander the 17-point lead their man had in May, but the truth is more prosaic. In politics, simple mistakes are enough to convert a winning campaign into a loser.
Dukakis’ first error was to ignore the polls. Throughout the primaries, poll after poll revealed strong ambivalence--the so-called wimp factor--about George Bush’s leadership. Yet instead of targeting whether Bush measured up to the presidency, Dukakis focused on the economic recovery and deficit. In short, he repeated Walter F. Mondale’s campaign of 1984--with results that seem equally ineffective.
His second mistake could have been avoided by studying the primaries. As Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas learned in New Hampshire--when he ignored the negative “Senator Straddle” ads characterizing him as prone to increase taxes--negative attacks must be answered swiftly.
The GOP began its blitz against Dukakis on crime and defense issues last June, soon after he emerged as victor in the California primary. Yet, for reasons hard to fathom, Dukakis did not respond to those ads until fall. Any candidate is at his most vulnerable when he first becomes widely but not well-known. For Dukakis, this window of vulnerability arrived after the California primary. Across America, voters became interested in knowing more about him; the GOP offered information with a vengeance. Dukakis’ negative ratings soared and he has never recovered.
The third and critical failing of Dukakis’ campaign was lack of discipline. Beginning on Labor Day, the Democrats seemed to flounder with their theme. One day Dukakis would reveal a new program and then move on to a new issue the next day--skipping from child care to welfare reform to housing programs to defense. Any political strategist knows it takes three or four days for a campaign theme to filter through the media to the voters; the message-a-day routine is doomed to failure.
Credit also belongs to the opponent. Where Dukakis committed errors, Bush ran a nearly error-proof campaign. He clung stubbornly to the Pledge of Allegiance issue as a way of contrasting his values with those of his rival right up to the minute when he reached overkill.
Bush also reached deep into himself for his speech at the GOP convention and again in the second debate, showing in public the Bush many of us came to know in private: a passionate fighter with real power to command. This takes much more than good coaching and speech writing. It takes a willingness to put everything on the line and reveal the inner man. By sharp contrast, Dukakis has been unable to project an equally strong sense of character to the voters.
As a result, when Dukakis did try to portray himself as tough on crime and defense--photo opportunities with policemen and riding in a tank--he looked ridiculous because he lacked credibility. Dukakis’ cool performance and tight mannerisms made him look like a man capable of accepting the right photo op regardless of his beliefs, whereas Bush’s photo ops became mirrors of his beliefs.
The Bush campaign now appears poised for landslide and, if the staff members feel as I did in 1984, it is eerie. On the one hand, there is a certain euphoria when a plan on paper is executed right and it works. The media start telling you that you are a winner. Your polls tell you the same. But there is still great uncertainty about what the voters will do on election day.
At this point, a campaign manager must remain controlled and stick to the plan that produced winning results. The temptation is great to improvise, to add new themes once your candidate is ahead, but that is usually the way to squander a lead. So I don’t expect any last-minute surprises from the Bush people. Watch instead for them to stick to the issues of Reaganomics, defense and traditional values which have carried them almost 30 points up from their position last May.
If they do, it should be another landslide.