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The Conference CALLS : Dukakis Differs From the Old-Time Democrats

July 17, 1988|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein covers politics for the National Journal

ATLANTA — Through the winding primary marathon that will culminate with his acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination here later this week, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has given Americans only the most general impressions of how he would run this country. None of his competitors could compel him to do anything more. Buttressed by a powerful fund-raising and organizational base, Dukakis outlasted his primary opponents with a streamlined appeal built on economic competence and managerial efficiency that minimized both specific commitments and sweeping philosophical declarations.

Partly as a result, on the eve of the convention, Dukakis remains little more than a bold smile with bushy eyebrows to much of the electorate.

"Most people don't have anywhere near enough information to make a meaningful judgment about him," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. Much of what they don't know could surprise them--for Dukakis embodies an important evolution in Democratic thinking--away from the old-time faith in large, expensive and centralized programs.

Even the party platform, for anyone who bothers to read it, offers few clues to the new direction. Only the barest hints of the Dukakis approach peep through the brief but still windy document; mostly, it groans beneath the weight of bleak, heavy-handed rhetoric that sounds more like Jesse Jackson and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) than the typically upbeat Dukakis. And it's difficult to read anything more than the map in Dukakis' selection of an Establishment Texan, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, as his running mate.

In foreign policy, Dukakis' reliance on international law and cooperation, skepticism about unilateral U.S. action and fervor for arms control places him squarely in the post-Vietnam liberal Democratic mainstream.

It's in domestic policy that Dukakis offers a different direction--not a shift toward conservatism but a "leveraged liberalism" of fiscal restraint and reliance on the private sector. That may disappoint Republicans hoping to label Dukakis as a recycled tax-and-spender and may also disappoint liberals optimistically compiling long and expensive agendas. "If Dukakis gets in, I predict 18 months from now there are going to be a lot of groups in Washington that are very unhappy," said Bob Greenstein, who runs the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Those fears are well placed. Even though Dukakis hails from Massachusetts, his victory this week will represent not the vindication of centralized big-government liberalism personified by his colleague Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, but the full flowering of the fundamentally non-ideological economic development agenda developed by governors of both political parties in the 1980s. Almost invisibly, governors such as Dukakis, platform chairman James J. Blanchard of Michigan, Bill Clinton of Arkansas (who will place Dukakis in nomination on Wednesday) and Mario M. Cuomo of New York have provided the most energetic, internally coherent, Democratic effort to rethink the role of government in this era of scarce resources.

"Dukakis believes that government should be activist, should be a catalyst for change, should not walk away from problems," said Thomas D. Herman, the campaign's deputy issues director, adding that "times have changed, and it is not the New Deal or the Great Society where government has a lot of money and believes it has many of the answers."

On two counts, Dukakis thought represents a break from the main currents in Democratic thought for the past quarter century. He and like-minded Democrats now clearly put primary emphasis on fostering economic growth rather than redistributing income. That focus has led Dukakis to direct spending toward programs that contribute to economic development--such as education, infrastructure, training--while restraining taxes. He and his allies have developed an array of activist programs for direct aid to local businesses that constitute a loosely structured industrial policy.

At the same time, Dukakis and company have rethought their approach to the problems of the poor. Instead of Walter F. Mondale's plea for "fairness," Dukakis talks about providing "opportunity." Implicitly, that places primary responsibility for escaping poverty on individuals trapped in it, not on government.

That shift in attitude illuminates the second Dukakis break from the traditional Democratic approach. Rather than establishing sprawling programs in Washington to envelop problems, Dukakis prefers two distinct--and sometimes contradictory--alternatives.

One uses government money to encourage other players--typically business or local authorities, but also welfare recipients--to cope with social needs. His housing proposals, for example, call not for massive federal spending or construction of huge projects, but the provision of limited federal assistance to local nonprofit organizations and other groups building subsidized low-cost homes.

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