WASHINGTON — The American political marathon is finally about over. On Tuesday, the voters of America will go the polls and confirm what everyone has known for weeks, that George Bush will be inaugurated on Jan. 20 as our nation's 41st President. On Wednesday, most Americans will collectively breath sighs of relief that this thing is finally over. If it was a boxing match it would have been stopped three weeks ago.
Usually, at the end of a campaign, there is a sense of excitement. Unfortunately, at the end of this campaign there is almost a sense of disappointment. Ever since Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984, political pundits and party activists have been saying '88 was the year for the most exciting race since '60--or at least '68.
Without an incumbent seeking reelection for the first time in 20 years, a close race was almost guaranteed. However, the 1988 campaign didn't live up to expectations. It is the feeling sports fans have after a dull Super Bowl or a short World Series. They didn't deliver. So it was for the campaign of '88.
It is unfair to say that this was an issueless campaign. Both men made many speeches on a variety of subjects, laying out their views of America. Numerous debates took place during the primaries and two national debates took place before millions of television viewers.
Still the images of the two candidates were not clear--and often distorted. Each tried to define the other and obviously Bush was much more effective.
The first rule of governing is to get elected. Bush did what he had to do to win. It might not have been the prettiest campaign in history, but it got the job done. He defined Michael S. Dukakis in a way that made him unacceptable to American voters. He also defined himself as a man up to the job.
The credo of both campaigns in 1988 might have been the words of the infamous, and still missing, Teamster president, Jimmy Hoffa: "I do unto others, what they do unto me, only worse."
What really happened in this campaign was that Bush was underestimated and Dukakis was overrated. Bush, like Reagan, has made a career out of beating expectations.
Presidents are not judged by their campaigns but by their accomplishments in office. Four years from now voters again will judge Bush on those--and I'm sure there will be many.
But the next two transition months are crucial. The Democrats are bitter and disappointed. They feel they could have won. The media is skeptical and will say that Bush has no mandated agenda. First and foremost, Bush must be a magnanimous winner. The time for a "kinder, gentler" approach is Nov. 9. He must move quickly. His appointments will tell a lot about a Bush Administration. Those he names must be qualified and have impeccable credentials. From the Reagan years, we have learned people are policy.
Bush must lay out his first 100 days agenda and his legislative goals. It may be many of the things he talked about during the campaign, but it must be refined and expanded. He must sit down with the leadership of the Congress--Democrat and Republican alike--before inaugural day and outline his budget priorities and listen to theirs. He must show he is going to be an activist, hands-on President.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Dukakis has to put aside his bruised ego, return to his governor's desk in Boston and start finding ways to cover the $190 million in bad checks that Massachusetts has floated while he's run around the country talking about balancing the federal budget.
The Democratic Party has to try putting itself back together after losing five of the last six presidential elections--four by landslides.
The Republican Party has to start figuring out how to win congressional seats and local races.
For the last six months, Bush has been compared daily with Dukakis. He easily won that battle. From here on out, he will be compared with Reagan and the 39 other men who have held the presidency.
The great football coach, Vince Lombardi, reportedly said, "Winning is not everything, it's the only thing." What he actually said was, "Winning is not everything--but making the effort to win is."
Under that criteria Bush, Dukakis and America all have won by the process this year.