WASHINGTON — It's neither fair nor true to say this is an election without issues. Elections don't tend to be intellectual debates over what opinion-makers declare to be the great issues of the day. Consequently, while U.S.-Soviet relations and what to do about the deficit are important, they have not drawn much attention from the campaigns. Big issues in elections are like scandals in polite society--alluded to but never discussed. And for good reason.
In presidential politics it is the issues of daily life that affect voters. And it is what people respond to that defines the vital issues of a campaign. Elites can draw up whatever issue agenda they like of critical problems facing the country. They don't count, electorally speaking, unless large numbers of people are willing to vote them. So it is somewhat elitist to think that what has been discussed in this election does not involve issues.
Crime is an immediate issue. People see it on the news every night. They worry about being safe in their neighborhoods. And they think their kids may be in danger from drugs. Of course the ads using Willie Horton were racist. But it is the widespread fears of Willie Hortons that exists in this country that makes it a powerful symbol.
George Bush's managers skillfully and cynically played on these fears. They were skillful in personalizing their message around an incident of interracial rape and violence. They were cynical in feeling no need to offer any solution, any program or any defense of their policies of the last eight years that might speak to this issue. It is enough to blame Mike.
To moan about the lack of issues in the campaign and the prevalence of negative ads is to miss the simple rationale behind the message: They are used because they work. The Pledge of Allegiance brouhaha raised in voters' minds what they disliked about the left in the 1960s. The burning of the flag and the lack of respect for the country's institutions are a legacy that the left and, by proximity, the Democrats have not yet lived down. The Republicans, with a wave of the flag and a mention of Jane Fonda, have shown their skill at reminding voters of issues the Democrats would just as soon they forgot.
The GOP talent for pushing the right buttons--racism, nationalism--has been enhanced by a core of beliefs they based their campaign on. As long as the opinion prevails that peace and prosperity prevail, Democrats are in trouble. Without the economic issue working for them, Democrats have always had a problem getting their message through to voters. Incumbent parties have been thrown out of the White House in the last 20 years when there was a foreign policy disaster (1968), when there was a huge political scandal (1976) and when the economy was inflating out of control (1980). Without these to use, Democrats are left in 1988 with one small but important word to throw into the attack on the Republicans: privilege.
Privilege, as Michael S. Dukakis has shown in the last few days, still works. While Republicans talk prosperity for all, they're offering the nation a pampered ticket briming with privilege. The part of the populace represented by Bush and Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana is the part that has done better than anyone else under the policies of the last eight years, to be continued in the next four.
Republicans may talk crime and flag, but they mean tax breaks for the big boys and welfare for the rich. Privilege is a traditional Democratic attack. For it's an issue people see in their daily lives.
In two days, it will be the voter who decides what issues are important. There's no reason to feel guilty if crime is a deciding issue. And you don't have to feel peculiar if you don't wake up Tuesday morning worrying how Brazil will pay off its international debt. Somewhere, in the middle of this range of issues, you might ask yourself a basic question about the two candidates: Which of these guys is likely to think about you when he's making a decision affecting you?
The bottom line on Bush, which his talented managers' nasty campaign against Dukakis can not obscure, is: Bush was born to privilege, he has advanced his career through privilege and he will help those with privilege who have helped him. If you can identify with Bush's life then you should probably vote for him.
If those voters who are not so lucky think about Dukakis, then this race may not be over.