It was akin to watching mild-mannered Clark Kent step into a phone booth only to emerge as a masked man in a Superman cape. On a visit to a tank factory outside Detroit last week, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis disappeared into a gigantic shed and came out in a green army helmet and a grey flak suit, riding the gunner’s turret of an M-1 battle tank. As Dukakis gamely gripped the handle of a 7.62-mm machine-gun, the tank rumbled off around a grassy field, belching smoke.
Then, with its 120-mm cannons pointing straight ahead and Dukakis flashing a mischievous grin, the driver charged the candidate’s travelling media corps, jolting to a stop only feet from startled network camera crews.
For Dukakis, the charge was no spontaneous prank.
After weeks of attacks from Republican rival George Bush for being soft on defence and patriotism, the Massachusetts governor in a new incarnation—The New York Times called him “Macho Mike”—was striking back. Kicking off a series of toughly worded speeches on national security against a backdrop of enormous American flags, Dukakis counterattacked with an assault on Bush’s negative campaign
tactics. But after declaring -
that “the American people can smell the garbage,” he promptly fired off some stinging salvos of his own. His belated fall offensive was a desperate attempt to stop his ratings from plunging further in public opinion polls: according to a Sept. 14 CBS poll, the Democrat’s 16point lead over Bush had been transformed into an eight-point lead for the vice-president in just over a month.
At the same time, Dukakis’s tank ride was merely the most blatant example of the candidates’ pitched battle for the top slot on nightly television newscasts. In fact, most analysts blame that image and the war of the television clip for turning this year’s presidential race into what retired rear admiral Gene LaRocque,
director of Washington’s independent Centre for Defence Information, calls “one of the dirtiest, nastiest campaigns” in history.
The insinuations have been as subtly malicious as the invective. When Bush branded Dukakis a “card-carrying” member of the American Civil Liberties Union, his language appeared to be a code word reminding rightwing voters of the “card-carrying” Communist
party members vilified by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the televised witch-hunts of the 1950s. And when he claimed that Dukakis “thinks a naval exercise is something you find in the Jane Fonda Workout Book,” Bush was pointedly linking his Democratic rival with a left-wing activist whom many Americans have never forgiven for her trip to Hanoi at the height of the Vietnam War.
Critics have also decried Bush’s attempts to question Dukakis’s affection for his country with a prolonged assault on his 1977 veto of a law requiring his Massachusetts teachers to lead their classes in the traditional pledge of allegiance to the United States. Not since the 1952 election—when vice-presidential candi-
date Richard Nixon called Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson a “traitor”— had one campaign raised the issue of its opponent’s patriotism. And even Nixon, a regular adviser to the Bush campaign, has publicly criticized this year’s level of negativity. But some observers saw in Bush’s public musings—“What is it about the pledge of allegiance that upsets him so much?”—a hidden agenda. Wrote novelist Philip Roth in last week’s issue of The New Republic. “Why is he turning the Pledge of Allegiance into a loyalty oath? Why, exactly, has he seized on the shallowest, most demagogic theme available? He is drawing attention to the aura of foreignness emanating from Dukakis’s name and appearance.”
Rather than deflecting the attacks with a quick outburst of righteous indignation, Dukakis frustrated many Democrats, including some of his own advisers, by at first refusing to enter the negative fray. Instead, he threw himself into patriotic one-upmanship. Dukakis’s advance teams scurried to outdo Bush with flagdecked backdrops—one rally featured 76 fluttering Stars and Stripes—while Bush led crowds in the pledge and claimed that flag sales had soared during the administration of Ronald Reagan. “And, my friends,” the vice-president added, “that is exactly the kind of America that I want to build.”
But as pollsters reported that Bush was setting the election agenda, Democrats assailed Dukakis’s passivity and his staff’s apparent disarray. After an avalanche of warnings that he had only weeks to turn around his campaign and a series of top-level conferences back home in Boston, Dukakis announced a new tactical weapon: the comeback of former manager John Sasso, the governor’s close friend and political strategist, believed to be the only man whose advice Dukakis would consistently respect. Sasso had been forced to resign last fall after admitting that he had supplied reporters with videotapes—later dubbed “attack videos”—showing that Delaware Senator Joseph Biden had plagiarized portions of his stump speeches in the Democratic primary.
Given those credentials, many party members hailed Sasso, officially named vice-chairman, as a match for Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, a native of South Carolina who wrote his college thesis on negative campaigning. And within a week of Sasso’s return, Dukakis was sharpening his campaign message and jibes at his rival. Nearly three weeks after Bush had taunted him with evocations of Jane Fonda, Dukakis last week used a rally on the grounds of the Maryland state capitol in Annapolis to reply that Bush’s “idea of a naval exercise is throwing his campaign advisers overboard.” He added, “They all seem to be going over the far right side of the boat.” With
that reference Dukakis underlined that eight Bush campaign officials have quit or been fired in recent weeks amid charges of anti-Semitism.
With the candidates also attempting to outdo each other with hawkish rhetoric, analysts unanimously lamented that the campaign was
obscuring worthwhile debate with mindless slogans and militaristic muscle-flexing. Said LaRocque: “You’ve got this sort of Fortress America mentality in the United States. With 29 million living veterans and defence contractors spread across this country, we’ve built into
the American psyche a war mentality. And every so often we get on these jingoistic chauvinistic kicks.” John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at Washington’s liberal Brookings Institution, agreed. And a clearly frustrated Steinbruner noted that, as the na-
tion stands at a crossroads facing the postReagan era, the mudslinging has left voters with no clear idea of what course either candidate would take. “You’d like to see at least some clue on both sides,” he said. “But you search in vain.”
Across the country, voters, too, expressed disgruntlement at the campaign’s tone. At Dukakis’s Maryland rally, U.S. seaman Donald Peterson complained that he was “not into people cutting each other down all the time.” He added, “The way the candidates are going to the bottom of the barrel to find the worst things they can say about each other—it’s not the way it should be.” And Curtis Gans, director of Washington’s independent Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, warns that the negativity could turn voters off, prompting many to stay home on Nov. 8. But current polls show no apparent backlash from the negative campaigning: ever since the Bush campaign fanned unsubstantiated rumors about Dukakis’s mental health this summer, the vice-president has gained steadily.
Bush’s personal swipes at Dukakis also have helped combat his former wimpish image, which he appears to have shed with a strong performance at the Republican convention last I month in New Orleans. Said Democratic politi| cal consultant Ann Lewis: “Nobody likes negative campaigns, and everybody wrings their hands saying we don’t want to get down into the gutter. But they seem to work.”
In fact, despite the feet that some reporters ridiculed Dukakis’s tank outing—ABC’s Sam Donaldson characterized it in The Washington Post as “the outstanding have-you-no-shame photo opportunity of the week”—the Democrat’s standing in the polls had increased within days of brandishing his new tough-guy image. And Dukakis has taken at least one daily public swipe at the controversial Republican vicepresidential candidate, junior Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, after focus-group studies by the Democrat’s campaign showed that voters reacted with anxiety to the words “President Quayle.” Dukakis evoked cheers from a crowd in Annapolis last week when he said, “George Bush put Dan Quayle one heartbeat away from the leadership of the free world—that’s his idea of judgment.”
Still, Dukakis does not seem entirely comfortable hurling personal insults or posturing with tough talk on defence. After hopping out of his tank turret, he undercut his newfound machismo by asking his media corps: “So what did you think? Did I look like I belonged up there on that tank?” Not according to Bush, who told reporters later in the week, “You cannot fool a Soviet leadership by knocking America’s defence for 10 years and then riding around in a tank for 10 minutes.” And as Dukakis countered Bush’s attacks on his defence stand, the Democratic candidate looked pained when, during a tour of forest fire damage to Yellowstone National Park, reporters demanded his reaction to a new Bush assault. The vice-president had turned his rhetorical guns on Dukakis’s record as governor in his harshest broadside to date, mocking the state’s so-called economic miracle as the “Massachusetts mirage.”
Some commentators have blamed the electorate for the low level of debate. Washington Post columnist Haynes Johnson argued recently, “The voters seem to be failing abysmally their collective political intelligence test, buying all of the lowest-common-denominator simplicities dished out by the political consultants.” Others have criticized the media for relaying the negative made-for-television message. But William Schneider of the conservative Washington-based American Enterprise Institute blames the candidates themselves. In a campaign without compelling issues or charismatic personalities, he argues that this year’s penchant for negativity shows that “the candidates don’t have anything else to say.” He added, “The one issue that it’s clear the voters care about is the deficit—and neither wants to talk about that.”
Schneider points out that Bush has been reluctant to spell out how he would address the problem for fear of breaking too openly with his campaign’s surest vote-getter, Ronald Reagan. And Dukakis has recoiled from detailing his plans in order to avoid raising the spectre that he would increase taxes. Said Schneider: “Each guy is afraid of spelling out his vision. As a result, they end up talking to each other.” And he adds, “No matter how ugly the campaign gets, I think it will get uglier before it’s over.” Until then, voters uneasy with the candidates’ failure to address the country’s most pressing problems will have to wait for the first presidential debate on Sept. 25—or tune out their nightly newscasts.
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