“Garbage!” cried Michael S. Dukakis about the relentless attacks George Bush mounted against him.
Bush, in effect, replied: That garbage is your record.
And so it goes, from Boston to San Diego and points between. With Election Day eight days away, the two presidential candidates are flailing away at each other coast to coast, in a spectacle that increasingly resembles a Punch and Judy show more than a contest for the nation’s highest office.
The rampant negativism on the campaign trail predictably has stirred in the electorate negative reactions from disappointment to outright disgust.
Each candidate blames the other, but, in fact, there is plenty of blame for both Bush and Dukakis--and there is a fundamental reason for the negativism that reflects the grand strategic designs of each.
For nearly two years, since they began their drives for the parties’ nominations, both candidates have sought to avoid the political risks involved in spelling out explicit solutions to the federal budget deficit and other national problems.
“I don’t know if this is the most negative campaign in recent history,” said Bryn Mawr professor Marc Ross, a specialist in the political uses of television, “but it sure as hell is one of the least positive.”
Ross said that while each candidate has offered a handful of remedies for narrow problems such as child care and the soaring costs of college, neither has dwelt on his proposals. More than that, he said, neither Bush nor Dukakis has offered a “vision, a set of values and goals” to inspire support and lay a foundation for a successful presidency.
Bush Defined Opponent
Instead, Bush, once having locked up the Republican nomination by securing a majority of convention delegates, focused with marked success on pounding away at Dukakis’ record and beliefs.
“Dukakis was a blank slate,” said Eddie Mahe, GOP consultant and informal adviser to the Bush campaign. “We couldn’t allow him to define himself as a moderate. We knew if we could get him into his cage on the left, he would only have 42% or 43% of the vote available to him.”
Bush also began trying to establish his own identity, but, as Republicans concede, this was difficult. He had little public record of his own, after eight years in the vice presidency and a host of government jobs before that, and had a hard time finding ways to express independence from Reagan without seeming unfaithful.
By concentrating on Dukakis, Bush managed to spare himself such problems. Moreover, his supporters discovered, somewhat to their surprise, that taking a hard line against his opponent seemed to make Bush appear strong and helped him solve what had long been his most serious problem as a potential President--the perception of him as a wimp.
Dukakis’ Late Reply
As for Dukakis, he began to complain more frequently about the vice president’s tactics as he fell further and further behind in the polls under Bush’s relentless attacks.
In California last week, Dukakis charged that Bush’s campaign was based on “distortions and distractions--and outright lies.” He said Bush “can’t win a campaign where the real issues are discussed.”
But critics, including some in Dukakis’ own party, say the Democratic candidate gave Bush the opening for his attacks by steering away from substantive proposals himself--deeming it less risky to talk about “competence” and his claims of success as governor of Massachusetts.
“If Dukakis is the injured party here, it’s only because he left himself open to injury,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. “He failed to define himself when he had the opportunity, and he didn’t respond soon enough to the attacks against him.”
This failure apparently resulted from a basic miscalculation on the part of Dukakis and his strategists. “They gave themselves too much credit” for winning the Democratic nomination, said William Carrick, who managed the candidacy of Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a Dukakis rival for the nomination.
Because Dukakis’ standing in the opinion polls steadily rose as he defeated the Rev. Jesse Jackson in a series of primaries, he and his aides “concluded that they had struck some responsive chord in the electorate,” Carrick said.
Thus they committed what Carrick and other Democrats believe were two fundamental errors that allowed Bush free rein in his attacks: Resting on the laurels of Dukakis’ acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, they failed to follow it up with an overarching message. And they did not hit back after Bush’s initial attacks.
Candidates complain that the press and television have contributed to the negative aspects of the campaign by focusing on the nasty things they say about each other and giving short shrift to their substantive proposals.
Though he had given seven speeches about farm policy while barnstorming across Illinois, Bush complained that “not one thing” about his farm views appeared on television or in the press.
But whatever the shortcomings of the media, most analysts feel that it is the candidates, with the millions they spend on television commercials and their carefully calculated thrusts from the stump, who are chiefly responsible for the negative tone of the campaign.
Positives of Negativism
Negativism is nothing new in American campaigns, and political scholars and practitioners are quick to point out that to some extent, such attacks have a legitimate role in the political process.
“There are always two sides to every candidate,” said GOP consultant Mahe. “Michael Dukakis and George Bush are each going to tell only one side of his candidacy, the favorable side. The only way the electorate is going to hear the other side of either candidate is from his opponent.”
Political scientists draw a distinction, however, between attacks that point up substantive differences between the candidates and attacks that stretch the truth and exploit emotions, as 30-second television commercials, by their very nature, often do.
Attacks, Nothing Else
What sets 1988 apart, said Virginia’s Sabato, is that “the negativism has been the centerpiece of the campaign.” Bush’s decision to “go negative,” as the professionals call it, was a key factor in reversing the early tide of the campaign. And Dukakis apparently has based most of his hopes for a comeback on his attacks on Bush’s attacks.
Against this negative backdrop, Curtis Gans, head of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, which analyzes voting statistics, predicts that voter turnout on Nov. 8 will drop below the 1984 level and be the smallest since 1948. That election, in which Harry S. Truman scored a stunning upset over Republican Thomas E. Dewey, was similar to the 1988 campaign in some respects, Gans said.
“You had two unpopular candidates in Dewey and Truman,” he said, “and Dewey, like Dukakis, was ahead in the polls early and didn’t think he needed to say much.”
Among the few defenders of the candidates and their campaigns are the national chairmen of the two political parties. In a rare display of bipartisanship last week, they sought to minimize the import of a poll showing that two out of three voters believed both parties should have picked better candidates.
“We’ve got a candidate who was picked by Democratic and Republican governors as the most effective governor,” said Democratic Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. “And on the other side, you’ve got a fellow who has been vice president for the last eight years. You can always look in the rear-view mirror, but I think you’ve got a clear choice out there.”
Republican Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. argued that “any American citizen who really cares has the opportunity to get as much information as possible about the candidates.”
Supporters Are Critical
But, as the polls and interviews with individual voters suggest, learning about the candidates does not necessarily lead to a higher opinion of them.
James Palmer, who came out in the rain to attend a Dukakis rally in McKeesport, Pa., 10 days ago, is backing Dukakis because, he said, “I think he is the better of the two.” But he added: “He just hasn’t gotten himself across the way I expected him to. He should have done much better.”
“I like his ideas,” said another disenchanted Dukakis backer, Bob Spargal, a steelworker who brought his three sons to the McKeesport rally. “But he shouldn’t have let Bush put out all that bad stuff about him.”
On the other side of the fence is Ed Gregory, a corporate planner from Cedar Grove, N. J., who attended a Bush rally in nearby Bloomfield and has followed news accounts of the campaign closely. Gregory said he probably will vote for Bush, mainly because he considers Dukakis too much “the Massachusetts liberal,” but he doubts that Bush, as President, will keep his campaign pledges.
“Bush comes out and says he definitely won’t raise taxes,” Gregory said. “I don’t believe that.
“It’s a shame that it has come down to this,” he said of the choice confronting him on Election Day. “There’s got to be better people than this to lead the country.”
Staff writer Don Shannon also contributed to this story.