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Axioms for ‘Gong Show ’88' : Dukakis Was Skewered by Amateurs on All Sides

<i> Ross K. Baker is a professor of political science at Rutgers University. </i>

All useful political knowledge is the product of breaking down unwieldy and sophisticated formulations into crisp, concise axioms. Much of what has been learned in the presidential campaign thus far can be reduced to wisdom that easily fits on cross-stitch samplers, fortune-cookie slips or bumper stickers. Here are seven nuggets of miniaturized wisdom from the election of 1988:

To achieve a victory in the primaries, money is necessary but not sufficient.

If the primary campaign of Michael S. Dukakis had any one conspicuous virtue that distinguished it from those of all the other Democratic hopefuls, it was its prodigious ability to raise money. The success of the Massachusetts governor is not the only proof of this. The failure of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt to sustain the advantage he won with his victory in the Iowa precinct caucuses suggests that even a candidate who appears to have caught fire with the voters cannot become a major conflagration without the fuel of money.

But money alone cannot compensate for a campaign that is poorly conceived and organized. The testimony to that assertion is Sen. Robert Dole, who enjoyed both an early advantage in Iowa and a hefty campaign treasury, and proceeded to squander both with astonishing speed. Dole just couldn’t extricate himself from the insider politics of the Senate. He gave the voters long and wordy disquisitions that included turgid detours into parliamentary procedure.

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A corollary of this axiom is that distinguished parliamentarians who can tap vast reserves of money may fare poorly as presidential candidates. Sens. Bill Bradley and Sam Nunn should take note of this for 1992.

The Tylenol principle cures political headaches.

It is now an established principle of damage control that you ‘fess up, fire the bums and forge ahead. When the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson was faced with the sabotage of its analgesic Tylenol, the corporate management dealt openly and truthfully with the public, dumped all the products from the shelves and gave refunds. When J&J; reintroduced the product, it went on to recapture its original share of the market.

Both Dukakis and Bush were faced with similar problems when high-level staffers got into well-publicized trouble. For Dukakis, it was campaign manager John Sasso and his role in the “attack video” episode that crushed the campaign of Sen. Joseph Biden. Dukakis agonized too long over losing his closest adviser, thus risking mortal damage to his campaign.

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Bush, in contrast, quickly secured the resignation of staffer Frederic V. Malek when it came to light that Malek had been responsible for carrying out a census of Jewish employees in the Bureau of Labor Statistics during one of President Richard Nixon’s paranoid periods. Bush also dumped, with commendable haste, some ethnic advisers linked to pro-Nazi groups during World War II.

Don’t adopt a Rose Garden strategy unless you own the garden .

Dukakis sat on the lead he had temporarily acquired by reason of the Democratic convention. It is an approach that can be used only by incumbents in the latter stages of the campaign when they are well ahead in the polls. Dukakis’ strategy would have worked only in a race for the Massachusetts governorship. Vice President Bush has labored in that garden as a dutiful groundskeeper but now acts as if he has the deed in his pocket. The stretch run will determine whether he will come out smelling like roses.

The future has no constituency .

There is Gov. Dukakis, his brow dark with portent, warning people about the future implications of the deficit. He tells them that they are mortgaging the future of their children. Yet there is little evidence that Americans fret a great deal about leaving the bill for their kids. Americans are the least provident people in the Western world. Savings rates are at an all-time low. Credit-card indebtedness is at an all-time high, and the dog-in-the- manger ethic among the elderly is “I’ve got mine, Jack.” Yet Dukakis persists in trying to reform this nation of high-rolling grasshoppers whose motto is “sufficient unto the day” into sober and diligent ants.

Liberalism and marital infidelity sell equally well to the voters.

In the eyes of the American public, the dashing Gary Hart and the reserved Dukakis are equally reckless. Hart was seen as a threat to the moral code, Dukakis to the tax code. Male voters would not trust Hart with their wives or Dukakis with their paychecks. It would follow that an abstemious conservative would prevail over these rakes, but Americans do like a hint of wickedness in their Presidents. Perhaps this is why Bush defiantly snacks on pork skins in face of prudent medical advice.

Campaigning can indeed make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

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While they have been conducting themselves like contestants in the political equivalent of “The Gong Show,” Bush and Dukakis are really intelligent and experienced men. They have been compelled by the new imperatives of negative campaigning to engage in activities so unseemly that voters shrink from the spectacle. For them to see these two decent men sullying each other so mindlessly is like watching Mother Teresa mud wrestling.

The most vital political question remains, “What have you done for me lately?”

It is useless for beleaguered liberals to point out that it was their philosophy that gave the nation Social Security and Medicare. Voters have very short memories. And all that took place years before People magazine became the journal of record.


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