WASHINGTON — At the start of a long hot summer of presidential politics George Bush confronts a problem of historic dimensions. He has the highest negatives of any modern candidate while Michael S. Dukakis has the lowest negatives of any non-incumbent candidate. The problem worsens when Bush tries to solve it.
If George Bush has proved anything in his last few weeks of attacking Dukakis, it is that he cannot take the fight to the Democrat. The attempt to lower his own negatives and raise Dukakis' has Bush falling on his face. Bush on the attack reminds one of Truman Capote trying to play John Wayne, a bad job of casting. The vice president does not have a good attack personality and his negatives are already too high to allow him to do much more of it.
His use of surrogates, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, to attack Dukakis hasn't worked. Traveling Republican senators simply don't have enough stature to attract public attention for the attacks they make on presidential candidates.
Paid media would be another club available for duking it out with the Duke. It would be but it's not, because in a monumental example of bad planning, the new leader of the Republican party doesn't have the money to spend. He has already spent up to the legal amount allowed before the August convention. Here is a candidate who has not had any opposition for the last four months yet who must watch his campaign fall in a financial hole dug by the best overpaid staff and overrated consultants his party has to offer.
What's left? Bring on the Gipper. Near retirement, with his mind clearly on more sedentary pursuits, Reagan has been called in to win one more for the GOPers. His Miami speech this week signals what lies ahead. The problem for Bush in this is twofold. One is that it recalls a little kid getting his big brother to fight his battles for him. The second is that it reminds anyone needing reminders that Bush is not Reagan; paling by comparison is not a great campaign tactic.
Of course the techniques of the attacks are not the only reason they're not working. Not all the issues aimed at Dukakis are falling anywhere near the target.
The charge that he's a McGovern liberal has a hollow ring next to Jesse Jackson's complaints that Dukakis is nowhere near the liberal he should be. Jackson calls for defense cuts, Dukakis opposes them; Jackson calls for higher taxes, Dukakis opposes them.
The "another Carter" charge has lost some zing after being played for all it was worth in the last two elections. The public seems tired of it and even a bit more fond of Jimmy in recent polls.
The barb that Dukakis is not responsible for the "Massachusetts Miracle" may work in an economics seminar but is too complicated an argument for use on the stump. What people know is that the state's unemployment rate was 10% when he became governor and stands close to 3% now. That looks pretty good.
This is not to say that Dukakis is invulnerable. Of the attacks that stick, the tax issue is foremost. The governor has enough of a history to be stung--a huge 1978 state tax increase, plus recent argument over his cigarette and income-tax hikes. Attacking a taxer has worked before and Republicans can be forgiven for believing that it could work again.
Another shot that hits is the shotgun blast at what is loosely called the value agenda. Aimed at the blue-collar swing voter with conservative social values, these matters are packaged to say that Mike Dukakis is a liberal whose values are not ours. This is what the attack on the governor's veto of a mandatory pledge of allegiance is about; ditto, for the slaps at his anti-capital punishment stands and the furlough program for convicts --which may make Willie Horton, who escaped from the program to rape and pillage, the third candidate in the race. To say that Presidents have little say over any of these issues is to miss the point: Voters want a leader who represents them and what they believe.
To sort out what works and what doesn't work, to determine how to deliver the attacks and to pull it all together into a coherent message are the tasks that lie ahead for the GOP. That will require time, and time is running out for George Bush.