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Bush's Plight: Reagan Kills an Old Issue

June 19, 1988|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — Is Michael S. Dukakis more skeptical about the Soviet Union than Ronald Reagan?

That's difficult to imagine, but it certainly sounded that way at times during the Massachusetts governor's appearance before the Atlantic Council here last week. Dukakis' measured tones offered none of the gregarious optimism that Reagan displayed during the superpower summit earlier this month. In these days of ringing declarations about the end of the Cold War, Dukakis praised the President's progress but stressed the need for a resolute Western alliance, warned that history is "an evolutionary and not a revolutionary process" and repeatedly reminded his audience that the United States will "continue to have fundamental differences with the Soviet Union." Set against Reagan's enthusiastic assertion in Moscow that differences between the two nations "continue to recede," Dukakis appeared hopeful but cautious and centrist--more like a dour Dean Acheson than an evangelical George McGovern.

For many GOP strategists, that is a nightmare image; they need McGovern on the ballot this fall. Over the past generation, Republicans have usually had great success in polarizing presidential campaigns on ideological grounds. George Bush's advisers have decided that the key to taking down Dukakis, who leads in the early polls, is to paint him as a elitist, "Harvard Yard" liberal, whose views reflect "the old inconsistencies of the left," as Bush has maintained in recent speeches. If Bush can't nudge Dukakis off the center, the vice president may never get out of the blocks.

Crime is one issue Bush can use in that effort, but it is not a decisive concern in national elections. To push Dukakis into an ideological corner, Bush, like Republican nominees before him, needs to caricature his Democratic opponent as a tax-and-spend liberal who is soft on communism.

So far the vice president has been pushing against the wind. Dukakis has refused to cooperate on the first count, avoiding major new spending programs (even his proposals for education and economic development are relatively modest) and any mention of new taxes. And though Dukakis strikes traditional liberal themes of restraint on defense spending and reliance on international law, Reagan is making it tougher on the second count by stirring expectations of a new, less confrontational era in U.S.-Soviet relations. "Where the traditional ideological battles have been," lamented one highly placed Republican party operative, "we're not fighting any more."

In particular, analysts in both parties agree that reduced tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are undermining the venerable power of the GOP's "soft-on-communism" argument. "The international situation helps Dukakis because it removes a confrontation that conservatives have always used to appeal to swing voters," said Stuart Rothenberg, political director of the conservative Institute for Government and Politics.

In part, the Soviet issue is receding because Reagan has provided the Democrats with inviolate political cover: It's difficult for Bush to bash Dukakis for naivete when Reagan is hugging babies in Red Square. To get at Dukakis, Bush first has to go through Reagan, who has both renounced his "evil empire" rhetoric and embraced Mikhail S. Gorbachev as a force for change. Bush seems willing enough to scramble over his boss--the day after the California primary he rejected Reagan's cheery assessments of the summit and questioned Gorbachev's intentions--but he can't push Dukakis into a corner that Reagan is already occupying.

Moreover, the room is spinning on Bush. Though Americans continue to eye the Soviets with skepticism, substantial majorities in both parties now believe that relations with the Soviet Union are improving, that Gorbachev's policies will lead to a more open Soviet society, that the recently signed Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty was a good idea and that the strategic arms reduction talks (START) should reach agreement. "This giant issue which has dominated presidential politics (since World War II) has been essentially neutralized because . . . Reagan has re-established a genuine bipartisan consensus," said Democratic pollster John Marttila, who has examined U.S. views on the Cold War as part of the extensive Americans Talk Security (ATS) polling project.

In urging caution, Bush isn't violating that consensus. But in urging the United States to test Gorbachev by pushing for further agreements, neither is Dukakis. Reagan has expanded the mainstream on this issue to the point where the Democratic nominee is now safely inside it.

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