Michael S. Dukakis had his best chance to turn the election around Thursday night, when he squared off with George Bush for the second and climactic presidential debate of the 1988 campaign. And he blew it.
Dukakis did not lose on debating points. As in the first debate on Sept. 25, the Massachusetts governor was a skillful debater who scored a number of direct hits against Bush. Bush won the debate where it mattered, however--on themes.
Dukakis should have learned something from the first debate: If you win the debate on points, you don't get the presidency of the United States as a prize. Dukakis honestly seems to believe that these really are debates. They are not. They are marketing opportunities.
The debates allow each candidate to appear before a national audience and make the case why he should be elected President. In both debates, Dukakis showed a superior grasp of issues. But Bush had a superior understanding of the thematics of the 1988 election.
Bush's message was reassurance. In fact, Dukakis did a good job of summarizing the Republican theme in his closing statement, when he said, "Our opponents say, things are OK. Don't rock the boat. Not to worry. They say we should be satisfied." Dukakis' message was bracing and cautionary. At least six times during the debate, he talked about the need to make "tough choices."
The American people are being asked to choose between a candidate whose theme is, "We're all right, Jack," and a candidate who says, "Eat your broccoli." Guess which they prefer? According to a Los Angeles Times poll taken just after the debate, viewers thought Bush won by a 21-point margin, though Bush went into the debate only a few points ahead.
Throughout the campaign, Dukakis has faced a formidable obstacle: Things just aren't that terrible for most Americans. Most parts of the country are doing fairly well economically, and things are looking up in areas that have been hurting.
Moreover, remarkable things are happening all over the world. Peace is breaking out everywhere--Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq War--and democracy is on a roll--Burma, Chile, Yugoslavia, even the Soviet Union. U.S.-Soviet relations are better now than they have been at any time since World War II.
The bottom line in the election is: It is difficult for a party to lose when it has a President with a 60% job-approval rating. Bush and Dan Quayle are rather weak candidates. But they are running on a strong record. Bush was right when he said in the first debate that there are "three candidates" on the GOP ticket. Those candidates are Bush, Quayle and Ronald Reagan. Reagan is the one winning the election.
Dukakis had to do two things in last week's debate. He had to make the case for change. And he had to convince the voters that Bush was the riskier choice.
Dukakis surprised a lot of viewers by not being more aggressively negative in his treatment of Bush. Instead, he treated the vice president with disdain: "I don't know which George Bush I'm talking about or looking at." He said, "I think the presidency of the United States is a very serious office, and I think we have to address these issues in a very serious way." Implying, of course, that he doesn't think Bush is very serious.
That same tone of mocking contempt is visible in Dukakis' anti-Bush TV commercials, which feature a particularly goofy photograph of the vice president. A recent skit on "Saturday Night Live" captured this point perfectly: A cast member playing Dukakis listened to Bush prattle on and then said, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."
But he is--in part because Bush takes Dukakis very seriously. His anti-Dukakis ads depict the Democratic nominee as a menace to the republic. They close with the question, "Can we afford the risk?" over music that sounds a lot like the theme from "Jaws."
Bush makes his point by repeatedly calling attention to Dukakis' liberal values. In fact, last week's debate may have been decided by Dukakis' answer to the first question. He was asked whether he would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife.
His answer was strikingly unemotional: "No, I don't . . . . I've opposed the death penalty nearly all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime."
Dukakis might have gotten away with opposing the death penalty as a matter of principle. But he opposed it on practical grounds. And on that issue, he is far outside the mainstream of U.S. public opinion--78% favor the death penalty for those who commit murder, according to a poll taken this month.