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Bush Simply Reads Voters’ Minds

<i> Tom Bethell is the Washington editor of the American Spectator. </i>

There is one person who recalls a more negative campaign than the one now coming to a close--Robert Bork. He was rejected for the Supreme Court last year following what Charles Krauthammer of the New Republic called “one of the most mendacious media campaigns ever launched against a public official.” One TV ad featured Gregory Peck falsely implying that Bork favored poll taxes and literacy tests, “far clearer racial code words than furlough could ever hope to be,” Krauthammer added.

It is true that Vice President George Bush’s campaign has drawn attention to “negative” aspects of Michael S. Dukakis’ record as governor of Massachusetts. And this may well have helped Bush. But since when was this an illegitimate exercise? Crime is an issue that the voters are seriously concerned about, blacks especially, since they are its principal victims. In his appointments to the federal judiciary, the next President can do something about it. Liberals may not like capital punishment, but they could at least reassure the rest of us that convicted murderers will stay in prison on weekends. Dukakis offers no such reassurance when he merely says that the Massachusetts furlough program was the brainchild of his Republican predecessor.

But Dukakis began to slump in the polls at least a month before the furloughed murderer Willie Horton became headline news. The turning point for Bush came during his acceptance speech in New Orleans, when he defined the policy differences between himself and Dukakis in ideological terms. As Fred Barnes of the New Republic said on a TV talk show recently, “Once Dukakis was labeled a liberal and it stuck, it was all over.”

Since then, liberals have been reduced to confusion. On the one hand they urge Dukakis to wear the label as a badge of honor; on the other, they accuse Bush of McCarthyism for calling Dukakis a liberal.

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I believe that the key issue in this campaign has all along been taxation.

The truth is that the middle class today is very highly taxed compared with earlier decades, and all we hear from the Democrats, and from an astonishing number of journalists, is the refrain that the “real issue” is the budget deficit. But as Peter Brimelow pointed out in Forbes, America’s general government deficit today as a percentage of gross national product is about what it was in 1958.

Nonetheless, there is in Washington a great lust for new taxes, and many voters are understandably apprehensive about this. They have good reason to be. Even though the top income-tax rate was reduced in his Administration, President Reagan several times caved in and agreed to tax increases (notably Social Security taxes), and in 1984 the Democratic presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, actually promised to raise taxes.

In his acceptance speech, by contrast, Bush took a very strong stand against new taxes (“read my lips”). It would be difficult for him to back down. Dukakis has been less reassuring on the subject. He would raise taxes only as a last resort, he says. When this difference between the candidates emerged, I believe, Dukakis was doomed.

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“Likability,” personality and so on have nothing to do with it. The candidates’ positions on the issues have everything to do with it. If anything, Dukakis has the more “presidential” personality. He’s cool, unflappable and obviously intelligent. Bush on the other hand often seems tense and frenetic--on the brink of losing his self-control. But on the issues Bush wins by a mile.

When will liberals get it into their heads that liberalism is not popular? President Reagan was elected and reelected not because he is a “great communicator"--which he is not, incidentally--but because the voters mostly agree with his positions on the issues. Dukakis is in trouble because they do not like his positions.

In a presidential race the most important of these issues is taxation, although crime may overtake it if federal judges continue to mandate the construction of subsidized (therefore crime-ridden) housing in middle-class areas, as happened last summer in Yonkers, N.Y.

In legislative races, liberals can still win, as California’s Sen. Alan Cranston and others have shown. The Founding Fathers separated legislative and executive functions of government, and voters now seem to acknowledge distinct roles for the two branches, even if these roles are not quite what the framers had in mind. About $900 billion annually is sent to Washington and put into a common pool (called, without irony, “the budget”). Legislators enjoy exclusive “drawing rights” to this pool, siphoning dollars out of Washington and into the pockets of constituents and special-interest groups. There are no rewards for fiscal conservatives who decline to join in the general siphoning operations (by voting against spending bills). That only leaves more for everyone else. Therefore, it’s rational for the electorate to vote for big-spending legislators, and that includes liberals.

But the lesson of Campaign ’88, I submit, is that voters are also looking for someone else to constrain the overall size of the budget pool, lest this process of everyone trying to live at the expense of everyone else gets out of hand completely. And that is where the President comes in. By vowing to veto new tax bills, he can reassure voters across the land that what Congress giveth, the taxman will not subsequently reclaim.

Liberals control the legislative branch but, this campaign suggests, there is no way they can also control the White House as long as the voters know what the candidates stand for. It took a little “negative campaigning” to tell them, but now they know.


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