WASHINGTON — Last week, the presidential candidates decided to treat the country to an edifying debate on national security.
George Bush aimed the following illuminating inquiries at his opponent, Michael S. Dukakis: "Are you now willing to say that you support the American action that liberated Grenada? Do you now support the air strike on Libya as a way of teaching Kadafi a lesson? Are you now willing to admit that your support for a nuclear freeze was a mistake?"
Dukakis took on the complexities of trade, terrorism and drug trafficking. "In each of these three areas, George Bush has failed," the Democratic nominee contended. "I want to beat our foreign competitors; he's willing to settle for second place. I want to crack down on terrorism; he knuckled under to the ayatollah. I want a real war against drugs; his answer to drug kingpins like Noriega is J. Danforth Quayle."
This is not an election. It is an anti-election. So far, the best thing Bush has going for him is Dukakis, and the best reason to vote for Dukakis is Bush.
When it comes to personality, neither candidate is a day at the beach. Both are awkward campaigners. Bush can be relied on to say something foolish at least once a week; if it's not pork rinds, it's Pearl Harbor. In Dukakis' case, George Will has observed that never in the history of American politics has a candidate been in such desperate need of anecdotes. Both men have a difficult time connecting with ordinary voters.
This race has no Dwight D. Eisenhower, no John F. Kennedy, no Ronald Reagan to attract voters with charisma. Instead, what passion we see is negative. It is not the voters' fault. Polls reveal that the voters do not have an especially negative view of either Bush or Dukakis. Now that the two conventions are over, each candidate is unfavorably regarded by about 30% of the public.
The reason for the negativism is simple: Neither candidate has much else to say. There is only one real issue in this campaign--the federal budget deficit--and neither dares to talk about it. Bush doesn't want to call attention to Reagan's biggest failure, and Dukakis remembers what happened when Walter F. Mondale tried to run on the deficit issue four years ago.
In 1980, the issues were clear. People were angry about inflation and military weakness. They voted for change. In 1984, the issues were also clear. People were happy with the economic recovery and with the new sense of national pride. They voted for continuity.
This year, nothing is clear. We have peace and prosperity, yes, but voters are uneasy about the future. A few months ago, people seemed to be opting for change and Dukakis was riding high. Since the GOP convention, continuity has become fashionable and Bush has made a comeback. Voters could go either way.
Dukakis' big mistake was to rely on Bush's negatives. He assumed that as long as Bush's unfavorable ratings were more than 40%, Reagan's job approval rating was no higher than 50% and two-thirds of the country said they wanted a change of direction, he could not lose.
That assumption was correct. What happened is that Republicans went on the offensive and changed the conditions. Bush ran a spirited negative campaign against Dukakis, calling him a Massachusetts liberal. It was hard for Dukakis to deny--he is a Massachusetts liberal.
Then the GOP convention became a week-long advertisement for peace and prosperity, reminding voters how much better things are since 1980. Reagan's approval rating jumped to nearly 60%. Bush's negatives dropped. And the desire for change--Dukakis' strength--began to diminish. "We are the change," Reagan told the convention, and many Americans apparently believed him.
Dukakis tried to remain above the fray. In fact, he went invisible. After all, he won the primaries as the "remainder man." He watched other candidates either self-destruct (Gary Hart, Joseph R. Biden Jr.) or destroy one another (Richard A. Gephardt, Albert Gore Jr., Jesse Jackson). Dukakis just picked up the pieces and walked away with the nomination. Now Dukakis thought he could sit back and watch Bush destroy himself. He would collect the remainder--the presidency.
But Bush did something no Democrat did. He went negative. He attacked Dukakis where Dukakis least expected--on his values. Bush used symbolic issues like the Pledge of Allegiance and the prison furlough program to show that Dukakis' liberal values were out of touch with most Americans. It worked. Last week, a Gallup poll found that, by 2-1, the public said they thought less of Dukakis as a result of the pledge issue.
No one had ever challenged Dukakis' values. Liberal values are not controversial in the Democratic Party. And they are no big issue in Massachusetts either. The fact is, Dukakis has never run against a serious conservative Republican. His GOP opponents in Massachusetts have been either liberals or nonentities.