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The Conference CALLS : When Balancing the Ticket Becomes the Boldest Choice

July 17, 1988|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — By naming Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas as his running mate, Michael S. Dukakis has made a bold choice. He has dared to pick someone who differs with him in style and ideology. As a result, Dukakis has offended those who believe a presidential campaign should make an ideological statement. Instead, he has relied on the first rule of vice presidential selection: Pick someone who will help you win.

Dukakis is supposed to be a cautious and conventional politician. But the cautious and conventional choice would have been Sen. John Glenn of Ohio. Glenn is just liberal enough for liberals and just moderate enough to sell in the South: a bookkeeper's choice.

Choosing Bentsen makes a stronger statement, directed at Reagan Democrats who are not liberals. They number in the millions and have been deserting the Democratic Party in record numbers since the 1960s. What Dukakis is saying to them is, "Come home. There will be no ideological test."

By choosing balance over uniformity, Dukakis has resurrected the old idea that the Democratic Party is a big tent. Back in 1952, the choice of Bentsen would have been conventional. Adlai E. Stevenson's running mate that year was Sen. John J. Sparkman of Alabama. But in the new, reformed party system, those kinds of messy inconsistencies are supposed to have been sorted out. These days, parties are expected to offer the kind of ideological coherence pleasing to activists. Liberals flock with liberals and conservatives with conservatives.

The Democrats tried that three times. In 1968, 1972 and 1984, they nominated a northern liberal for President and a northern liberal for vice president: Hubert H. Humphrey and Edmund S. Muskie, George McGovern and Sargent Shriver, Walter F. Mondale and Geraldine A. Ferraro. The Democrats did about the same each time--roughly 40% of the vote. In other words, three catastrophes.

Dukakis appears to have finally learned the lesson. Democrats cannot win by defining themselves as a liberal party. They have to offer more--particularly to the South, which will not support a ticket of liberals. Hence, Bentsen.

The Democrats have never won the presidency without carrying Texas. Bentsen makes the Democrats competitive in Texas--though it will still be an uphill battle to defeat George Bush in his home state. Will Bentsen make the ticket competitive in other Southern states? Probably, because his nomination is a clear response to the issue of Southern resentment. Southern Democrats have become increasingly resentful about being written off by the party. They organized the Southern regional primary on Super Tuesday to try to prevent another Democratic ticket like those of 1968, 1972 and 1984. The South was saying "No more Mondales."

Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee ran for President this year on the issue of Southern resentment. It won him five Southern states on Super Tuesday. Unfortunately for Gore, Southern resentment is not much of an issue in Illinois or New York. But it is a real issue in the South. Dukakis is saying to Southern Democrats, "I hear you."

Dukakis knows that the Democrats cannot win the presidency without being competitive in the South, and a Northeastern urban ethnic liberal like him needs help there. The only way the Democrats have ever won is with a coalition of the Northeast, the industrial Midwest and the South. Look at a map of states the Democrats carried in 1960 and 1976. Those two winning coalitions cut across the Mason-Dixon line. There was a Southerner on the ticket both times.

The choice of Bentsen was bold--also risky. In the old days, when ideological requirements were less rigorous, a ticket was supposed to balance. Now, instead of praising a ticket for being "balanced," we criticize it by saying the candidates "clash."

That is certainly the case with Dukakis and Bentsen. Their ideologies clash. Dukakis is a liberal and Bentsen is a moderate. They differ on many issues: Bentsen supports an oil import fee--he is a Texan, after all--and he has voted for the Reagan tax cuts, aid to the Contras and the MX missile. Bentsen does have a good civil-rights record, however, and he is far less conservative than Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, the other leading Southern prospect for the ticket.

Their styles clash even more than their ideologies. Dukakis is a reformer. Bentsen is a regular. Bentsen heads a powerful Texas political organization. He has the image of a wheeler-dealer. He was embarrassed last year when the story got out that he had invited lobbyists to join his $10,000 breakfast club. Bentsen also gets more money from political action committees than almost any politician in Washington. Dukakis doesn't accept PAC money and favors PAC reform. In short, Bentsen is a classic Texas power-broker--just like Lyndon B. Johnson, who happens to hold the record for the biggest landslide in U.S. history.

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