Michael Dukakis is mainstream in his program proposals. Those he has put forward on college loans, housing and health care are likely to be passed by a Democratic Congress in the next four years. Most would be signed by George Bush, if he becomes President, with the same enthusiasm that President Reagan showed last week in signing a welfare reform bill which also bore the imprint of Dukakis' thinking. They are creative solutions to real problems.
But at the level of symbols and values, Bush has effectively made the case that Dukakis is outside the mainstream. And that, as much as the winning personality the vice president displayed in the final debate here last night, is why he stands on the verge of victory in the 1988 presidential race. Today, there are few Democratic politicians who would deny that their ticket would be stronger if Lloyd Bentsen of Texas were on top and Dukakis were his running mate. But the Bentsens of the Democratic Party cannot compete effectively in the current nominating system, as the senator discovered when he tried in 1976.
Except for Jimmy Carter, the Democrats have a history of nominating liberal candidates who come from liberal states, where the Republican opposition is weak. The Hubert Humphreys, Walter Mondales and Michael Dukakises are skilled in playing to the liberal constituencies inside their own party. But they are vulnerable to value-based attacks from conservative Republicans.
That is why the Democrats have so many unhappy autumn days while other Americans are enjoying the World Series.