THE MEAN MACHINES
A MUDDY RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
They were born only 11 km from each other in two leafy small towns of Massachusetts’ Norfolk County. One was an immigrant doctor’s second son, the other, the second son of a blue-blood financier. But both were products of comfort and the same flinty, stiff-upper-lip Yankee values—notions of hard work, public service and the view that real men do not boast about their achievements. Their friends still use the word “decent” to describe them. And their critics have faulted them for the same character flaws: too much cautious moderation and too little charisma. But one of the most startling aspects of this year’s presidential election is that those two mild-mannered and fair-minded men—George Herbert Walker Bush and Michael Stanley Dukakis— have turned their $266-million battle for the White House into the meanest, most negative and most alienating campaign of recent American history.
Last week, their mutual mudslinging reached an ugly crescendo that may ultimately prove costly to both. In a volley of charges and countercharges, each branded the other a liar. And as Dukakis threw himself into a last-ditch fight for his political life against Bush’s solidifying nine-point lead in the latest NBC NewsWall Street Journal poll, their backers escalated the exchange of venom. Jesse Jackson charged that Bush was “endangering the lives” of blacks by running a campaign with racist undertones (page 36). Another former Democratic candidate, Representative Richard Gephardt, compared Bush’s tactics to those of Adolf Hitler. Firing back, the vice-president accused Dukakis of trying to “incite fear of foreigners” with a protectionist trade pitch. And in a new TV commercial, Bush contended that Dukakis—in protesting that he had not borrowed money from the Massachusetts pension fund—had “deliberately misled 62 million Americans in the last debate.”
But in the midst of their lunge for the jugular, overwhelming evidence mounted that, no matter who wins the Nov. 8 ballot, Bush and Dukakis were both losing something far more important: the respect of American voters— not only for the candidates themselves but for the democratic process. “There’s less interest in voting this year,” said Ken Grubbs, editorial page director of the conservative Orange County Register, outside Los Angeles. “It tells you people are disgusted by both sides.”
Alarming: As a result, pollsters are predicting the lowest voter turnout of this century. That prospect is all the more alarming in a country that already ranks last in electoral participation among the five leading industrialized democracies. While 75 per cent of Canadians voted in the last federal election, only 53 per cent of Americans did. And U.S. media accounts of last week’s Canadian leaders’ debates contained notes of wistful admiration for their format’s lack of stage-managed rules—in marked contrast to their own stilted presidential counterparts (page 38). Commented Canadian-born ABC TV anchorman Peter Jennings: “This is what a real election debate can look like.” But if, as analysts predict, fewer than half of all eligible U.S. voters cast their ballots next week, those figures carry an implicit censure. Said Grubbs: “It’s got to be very chastening— or humiliating—for whoever wins. Given the arithmetic, it means only a minority put him in office. He can hardly claim a mandate.”
The electorate’s disenchantment runs deep. A CBS News -New York Times poll revealed last week that fully 64 per cent of the voters who responded wished that they had other candidates to choose from. As Robin Collins, a Los Angeles jewelry store clerk, put it: “It’s really awful that the choice is between these two. And it’s frightening to think that one of them will become president.” Collins’s personal solution seems fitting for a campaign that more than any other has been tailored for television viewers. Said Collins: “I feel like writing in Peter Jennings for president on my ballot.”
Apathy: Part of the apathy springs from the low-watt personalities of both Bush and Dukakis. But there is nothing new about Americans’ frustration that a nation so proud and populous cannot field more scintillating candidates. James Bryce, the author of the landmark study The American Commonwealth, devoted an entire chapter to the subject “Why great men are not chosen president”—in the election of 1888. Still, lacking Ronald Reagan’s personal appeal, Bush and Dukakis also have failed to offer a clear or compelling political vision. Both have spent much of the campaign trying to be all things to all wings of their parties—and, as a result, have often failed to inspire enthusiasm in any of them.
Softer: Despite Bush’s professions of faith in the covenants of Reagan’s conservatism, Republican right wingers voice uneasiness about him. Although they are backing him
against Dukakis, said Grubbs, “they don’t much like him.” He added, “Bush is perceived as a much softer fellow who's more accommodating to the eastern Establishment.” Meanwhile, Dukakis’s strategy of trying to win back the affections of the estimated nine million conservative Democrats who flocked to Reagan’s banner in the past two presidential elections has plainly misfired. By early last month, the Democrats had already written off their once-buoyant hopes of reclaiming those so-called Reagan Democrats in the South and shuttered most of their regional offices. In addition, Dukakis’s blatant romancing of conservative southern white males had alienated many blacks who make up the party’s largest bloc of loyalists. Fewer blacks say that they will vote this year than in 1984, and twice as many—six per cent—say that they will vote Republican.
But Dukakis has also offended other traditional Democrats by his studied middle-of-theroad vagueness. One such Democrat is Amy Caiazza, a 20-year-old Georgetown University student in Washington, D.C., who had been looking forward to casting her first vote in a presidential election. Last February, she took a bus to New Hampshire to volunteer in Dukakis’s primary campaign. But so disillusioned is she now that she plans to mark her ballot for obscure Libertarian candidate Ron Paul. “It’s more of a protest vote,” said Caiazza. “Dukakis is denying so much of what he stands for that I feel like he’s deceiving people. To me, it’s almost as important to be saying what you believe in as to be winning. Now he isn’t doing either and he looks like a buffoon.”
Idealism: Caiazza’s shattered idealism reflects an alarming growth of public cynicism. A recent Parents magazine survey found that 79 per cent of its respondents believe that both candidates are just saying what they think the voters want to hear. Overwhelmingly, voters blame their cynicism on the candidates’ negative advertising. But the irony of their protests is that, as the polls demonstrate daily, the negativity has worked.
In the Bush camp, the seeds of the negative campaign were planted back in primary season. On May 26, less than two weeks before the final California primary, five of Bush’s top campaign staff members convened two focus groups of 15 voters in a conference room in Paramus, NJ.
At the time, Bush was trailing Dukakis by 16 points in the most recent Gallup poll, and half of those surveyed reported that they did not like Bush’s personality. News reports had ridiculed the vice-president as a “wimp” and Reagan’s “lapdog,” and his own propensity for verbal bloopers had reinforced the image. In political parlance, Bush’s “negatives” were high.
Mirror: But hidden behind a twoway mirror, his strategists watched a researcher inform the focus groups about a massive computerized search of Dukakis’s record and public utterances. Among the revelations: that the Massachusetts governor had vetoed legislation requiring his state’s teachers to lead classes in the pledge of allegiance and that a black convict named Willie Horton, on an escape from Massachusetts’ weekend prison-furlough program, had raped a Maryland woman and terrorized her then-fiancé. By the end of the presentation, 15 of the 30 Dukakis supporters had turned against him. “I realized that there we had the wherewithal to win,” said Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, who witnessed the exercise and wrote his University of South Carolina doctoral thesis on negative campaigning. “The sky was the limit on Dukakis’s negatives.”
Themes: Those same pledge and furlough themes promptly appeared in Bush campaign commercials in the general election. And as the vicepresident stumped the country posing with policemen and suddenly talking tough about the need for the death penalty, he managed to raise Dukakis’s negative ratings as he lowered his own. Polls by The New York Times showed that while only 23 per cent of respondents said that Bush was tough enough on crime in July, by last month, 61 per cent did.
As Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, pointed out: “Everyone says, ‘I hate the negative ads,’ but the charges stick. What do people remember about Dukakis? That he furloughed a convicted murderer and is soft on criminals.” Sabato predicts that negativity will continue to characterize election campaigning “until voters penalize people who use it.”
He added, “I think eventually the American people will get mad as hell and say, ‘We’re not going to take it anymore.’ ”
After nearly six weeks of studiously ignoring Bush’s assault over the airwaves, Dukakis has spent the past three weeks lashing back at the attacks as “distortions, lies and misrepresentations.” His own negative commercials attacking Bush’s television ads have now become the centrepiece of his message—and private Democratic polls show that Dukakis has begun to narrow the gap slightly. In the process, critics have found that Bush holds no monopoly on
taking liberties with his opponent’s record. One Dukakis commercial claims that Bush cast a tie-breaking vote to “cut” social security benefits in his role as president of the Senate; in fact, he voted to freeze cost-of-living increases for them.
In the view of political scientist James David Barber of North Carolina’s Duke University, “We’re experiencing the degeneration of political discourse in this country.” But as Barber points out, even the advertising war may have provided significant insights into the candidates’ characters. Part of a president’s job, after all, is to reassure his countrymen. “There has to be a conversation between the power and the people,” said Barber. “A president has got to be good with rhetoric.” In a 90minute live interview on ABC’s Nightlinelast week, Dukakis himself acknowledged that he had committed a strategic error in not answering Bush’s attacks sooner—and communicating to voters who he is and what he stands for. Said William Schneider of Washington’s nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute: “Bush charged him with being soft, and Dukakis proved he was right by just sitting there and taking it.” Disarray: In fact, analysts see in the disarray of Dukakis’s advertising strategy a mirror of what North Carolina Democratic Senator Terry Sanford has called “the worst-managed campaign in this century.” Dukakis’s commercials have constantly changed focus, sending out a series of scattered and sometimes confusing messages. His advertising director, David D’Alessandro, spent an estimated $2.4 million on television spots featuring actors who played a team of Bush media manipulators talking jadedly about how to “package” their candidate. But after the commercials were already on the air, a test sample showed that some viewers thought they were testimonials for Bush.
And John O’Toole, an advertising executive, warns of the dangers in Dukakis’s current ads that complain of his opponent’s unfairness. Said O’Toole: “Now we see Dukakis as crybaby.”
Slick: Some analysts point out that the Democrats, having lost every presidential election since 1968—with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s 1976 victory—lack a
team of slick professionals with experience in winning. In fact, a number of veteran Madison Avenue admen, who volunteered their services to Dukakis, quit his campaign after their scripts and suggestions were ignored or officials hesitated to air their harder-hitting ads.
In an interview with CBS anchorman Dan Rather last week, Dukakis protested that the election was “not about who puts together the best commercial—it’s about who would lead the best government.” But the chaotic management of his advertising undermines the very standard that he himself set as a test of leadership: competence. Across the country, Democrats nurse bruised egos and frustrations over seeing their regional efforts rebuffed by Dukakis’s Boston high command. In New York, the state with the second-largest bloc of Electoral College votes, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union planned its traditional rally saluting the Democratic nominee in Manhattan’s garment district. But wishing to avoid too close a link with labor, Dukakis’s aides declined the invitation. Now,
New York Democrats are watching in disbelief as his once-substantial lead in the state has withered. Said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political communications specialist from the University of Texas: “Can someone who can’t manage a campaign manage the country?”
But the blame for Dukakis’s faltering campaign is not exclusively his own. When he launched his White House bid last year, many Democrats exulted that at last they had a candidate who could inspire confidence in voters about his ability to manage the economy. With polls showing the public’s chief concern was the trillion-dollar deficit and its mushrooming trade imbalances, the manager of the so-called Massachusetts miracle seemed a good bet to win the election.
Remote: But voters in recent campaign focus groups have demonstrated that, after 71 months of continuous economic growth—the longest period of prosperity since the Second World War—they now regard the economy as an increasingly remote concern. A year after the Black Monday stock market crash, 85 per cent of Americans reported that the crisis had no impact on their lives. And even in the troubled Rust Belt states of the industrial Midwest, workers are newly optimistic: a 30per-cent increase in exports over the past year has spurred a minor job boom, sending compa-
nies scrambling to upgrade factories and boosting salaries by 7.7 per cent.
Nor is there any external threat on the horizon to shake the national sense of security. Reagan has banished his own “evil empire” rhetoric by signing a historic arms-control treaty with Moscow. And with the Soviets pulling out of Afghanistan and hostilities appearing to end in Angola, most Americans have the impression that, as Schneider puts it, “peace is breaking out everywhere.” Added to that are the nation’s newly restored self-image and—nearly two years after the damaging Iran-contra scandal—the renewed popularity of America’s Republican president. Asa result, Bush is battling complacency and overconfidence: he fears the perception that he has already won may discourage his supporters from taking the trouble to vote. And in a flurry of live media interviews, news conferences and new rosy-hued ads picturing idyllic scenes of Americana, Dukakis is combatting the conventional wisdom that he has already lost—a view that might convince potential voters that their support is futile.
In addition, in recent weeks, Dukakis aides have hinted at an “October surprise,” a phrase used during the 1980 campaign to describe a possible release of American hostages held in Iran—which could in turn influence the election. The speculation this year centred on testimony—released from an unrelated Colorado trial—that in October, 1980, Bush himself flew to Tehran to deliver a $48-million payoff to the Iranians in return for not releasing the hostages before the balloting. But investigations by both The Washington Times and The Boston Globe have failed to corroborate the testimony.
Last week, as Dukakis addressed an outdoor crowd on the slopes of Mount Diablo in California, his aides glanced with resignation at turkey buzzards and vultures circling overhead. One staffer remarked to a reporter, “You’d have to be crazy not to use that image in this campaign.” Obituary: But publicly, Dukakis has criticized the media and pollsters for prematurely writing his political obituary. “I think the American people are getting tired of being told how they’re going to vote,” he told a rally in Rockford, 111., last week. Then, he flew to Independence, Mo., the home of former president Harry Truman, to remind voters of the 1948 election, when the Chicago Daily Tribune published a first-edition headline reading “Dewey defeats Truman”—only to wake up the next morning to find that Truman had won.
The complex arithmetic of the Electoral College—which actually decides American elections—is also working against Dukakis. Under the mechanisms of that 199year-old body, a state’s voting power reflects the size of its population, and whichever candidate wins the popular vote in a given state also reaps its entire harvest of Electoral College votes. A candidate needs 270 of those votes to win the White House. And with population shifts toward the West and the Sunbelt—which have become Republican strongholds—evidence has mounted that Republicans may have developed a so-called lock on the Electoral College. Already, Bush appears poised to repeat that pattern (map, below).
In fact, Bush campaign manager Atwater acknowledges that—using patriotic and law-and-order issues—one of his goals has been to build a political base that will send a Republican to the White House until at least the year 2000. “If George Bush wins the South,” said Atwater, “that will be three consecutive back-to-back victories, and I am convinced that the South will go Republican for the rest of the century.” Indeed, if Dukakis’s own southern strategy fails on Nov. 8, even many Democrats are predicting an identity crisis for their party. Some of them are already warning that the bitterness left from this year’s centrist strategy will produce a “bloodbath”—beginning with elections for the chairmanship of the Democratic national committee. But, said Schneider, an election loss will also force Democrats “to look very hard at their values— what they can keep of liberalism, what they can throw out and what they can repackage.”
Control: Meanwhile, the Democrats can console themselves with demographers’ predictions that their party will retain control of Congress—certainly the House of Representatives and probably the Senate—until the turn of the century. In fact, that prospect has led even some conservatives to predict that, should Bush win the White House, he may face storm clouds ahead from a hostile Congress. Without Reagan’s popularity or communication skills, Bush is unlikely to be able to intimidate legislators by threatening to take his case directly to the American people. And the negative tone of his election campaign, said the University of Virginia’s Sabato, “may very well shorten his honeymoon with Congress.”
Cast: Commentators have already sketched the probable cast of a Bush cabinet, including campaign chairman James Baker as secretary of state and former Texas senator John Tower as secretary of defence. But beyond that, few political scientists profess to know what shape a Bush presidency would take: after eight years in the vicepresidency and a bitter 20month campaign, Bush—and his political vision—remain largely a mystery.
James David Barber, the author of Presidential Character, points to Bush’s past patterns for clues. In a succession of jobs, from director of the CIA and chairman of the Republican national party under Richard Nixon to the vice-presidency under Reagan, Bush has prided himself on his loyalty to his bosses. “Bush is given to devotion to someone else above him who tells him what to do,” says Barber. “So what’s he going to do when there’s no one above him?” In Barber’s view, that character trait could give Bush’s aides and underlings undue influence. “His devotion does not necessarily have to go upward,” said Barber. “We could then wind up with a President Jim Baker.”
Still, as commentators gazed into their crystal balls, some political veterans continued to stress that the campaign could yet change dramatically. And few Americans seemed to be more aware of that than the publisher of Dell/Yearling Books. On one of his editor’s desks sits two finished manuscripts, both titled The Story of the Forty-First President of the United States—one on Bush and one on Dukakis. But not until the morning of Nov. 9 will he risk publishing one and consigning the other to a filing cabinet for future reference.
MARCI MCDONALD in Washington
HOW THE STATES ARE LINING UP
Under the complex U.S. system, each state has a number of Electoral College votes equivalent to the number of senators and representatives that it sends to Congress. There are 538 Electoral College votes in all—and a candidate needs to capture 270 to reach the White House.