WASHINGTON — Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' impressive New York primary victory does more than move a man far down the road to the Democratic nomination. It also brings Democrats eyeball-to-eyeball with what could be their principal late-1980s weakness: potential renewal of Jimmy Carter-style inability to govern at a time when the country's economic problems dwarf those of the Carter era.
Maybe the Democrats--and Dukakis-- can stitch together a victorious November voter coalition. After last Tuesday, it's easier to see how. The Democrats went into New York looking like the circus had come north early this year. They came out looking like potential November winners. But if they do win, can they handle the country's problems? What's more, given America's converging economic jeopardies, some Democrats privately wonder if it's politic to try. The party's horizon after the New York primary is a bit like sunrise in a field of icebergs.
Jesse Jackson isn't the problem. Party leaders can't beat that carpet much longer. He seems to be acknowledging that Dukakis can pick his own running mate. All in all, the Democrats are closer to wrapping up their nomination than anyone could have imagined back on March 27, the day after the controversial preacher threw the party into a swivet by winning in Michigan. And there's even speculation about Dukakis picking a strong vice-presidential candidate--Georgia's defense-oriented Sen. Sam Nunn.
So it may be time to re-examine the notion that the last six weeks of intra-party Democratic divisiveness, with its resultant delay in the emergence of a party nominee, works to give Republican George Bush a November edge. For the last two decades or so, it has usually been true that the first party to sort out its nomination went on to win the presidency--typically the Republicans. Arguably, though, the GOP was more united because its cyclical hour had come--Republican voters had reasons to be cohesive. By contrast, the relatively drawn-out, fratricidal Democratic nomination processes of 1968, 1972, 1980 and 1984 reflected the extent to which the once-victorious Democratic presidential coalition was in a decline-and-fall pattern. Constituencies formerly allied within the old New Deal coalition were almost at war.
This state of affairs may be past-tense now, and if so, it's good news for the Democrats. Sure, the party's 1988 nomination contest has flirted with a return to fratricide, but the ultimate result may just be something else--the evolution of a new Democratic coalition, one finally outgrowing the cleavages and failures of the '60s to reconstitute itself around what will be the new issues of the '90s. July's party convention could still be a negative, of course. But if Dukakis rolls through the late primaries, avoiding the last-minute second thoughts that afflicted both Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale in California's June primary, and if Jackson accepts the primaries' verdict in return for a somewhat more populist Democratic message, the Massachusetts governor could win the White House. Polls certainly make him a viable contender.
Yet if the chances of shaping a new winning Democratic coalition are not unreasonable, clever Democrats nevertheless find themselves looking beyond November to the possibility that a 1989-92 White House incumbency could be political quicksand. It's fair to say that orchestrating a coherent policy in a new Democratic Council of Economic Advisers, in a Dukakis Treasury Department or in the spring, 1989, economic summit could be more difficult than scraping together a 1988 majority in the Electoral College.
Three good reasons, in fact, suggest that Democrats should be distinctly leery of their capacity to run a successful 1989-92 administration.
Dukakis' own background is the first potential shortcoming. Set aside for a moment the general skepticism, based on Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, that governors lack credentials to cope with America's declining role in the world economy. Two specific Dukakis-experience caveats are also relevant. Pundits are already starting to outline disturbing parallels between him and ex-President Carter--a technocratic mentality, a lack of popular rapport or charisma and an inability to relate to the everyday ego demands of state legislators or congressmen. And then there's the nature of Dukakis' conditioning by the "Massachusetts Miracle."
Consider Dukakis' painless fiscal stewardship during the 1983-86 period when Massachusetts state revenues were rising at a rate of 12% a year. It would be hard to imagine more counterproductive training for Washington in the Gramm-Rudman era. Things are getting tighter in Massachusetts now but for four years Dukakis was able to fund a steady expansion of new government programs while taxes were cut.