Candidate from suburbia

MARCI McDONALD August 1 1988

Candidate from suburbia

MARCI McDONALD August 1 1988

Candidate from suburbia


The images were both shrewd and contradictory. For four nights, the Hollywood producers of last week’s Democratic national con-

vention choreographed their $2.5million extravaganza with all the slickness of a prime-time television variety show. On the futuristic stage that dominated Atlanta’s crammed Omni Coliseum, a succession of stars lent a glittering showbiz gloss to the old standards of American patriotism. Garrison Keillor, author of Lake Wobegon Days, led off the festivities with a dozen schoolchildren in a show-stopping version of the Pledge of Allegiance. And Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday belted out a rousing jazz rendition of God Bless America as recently squabbling party leaders—including runnerup candidate Jesse Jackson—gathered onstage for a happy-ending tableau of unity and healing.

So deftly was the production orchestrated that some of the 4,162 delegates complained that they felt like props. And in a way they were. For the specta-

cle was aimed not at the sweltering Democrats in the convention hall but at millions of television viewers across the nation. And the show’s glitz paradoxically celebrated a quality in its star— newly annointed Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis—that party officials are gambling will be embraced by those Middle American TV spectators: his sublime ordinariness.

Indeed, despite the fact that Dukakis gave the most dynamic speech of his political career—a ringing pledge to lead the nation toward “the next American frontier,” punctuated by 101 bursts of applause—convention organizers went out of their way to underline their candidate’s lack of glamor. In a longwinded nominating address, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton hailed Dukakis as “a guy who mows his yard with a handpowered mower and who’s so clean he squeaks when he walks—the kind of man who plays it straight, keeps his word and pays his bills.” And the nominee’s actress-cousin, Olympia Dukakis—winner of an Academy Award last spring for her role in Moonstruck—narrated a video biography that provided a

folksy home-movie tour of his roots in the comfortable Boston suburb of Brookline.

Behind those portraits lay not only the convention’s theme but also the Democrats’ strategy for the autumn election campaign. By depicting Dukakis as a suburban Everyman—concerned about housing, health care and education—the party is attempting to lure back the key block of Middle American swing voters who defected in the last two presidential ballots to vote for Ronald Reagan.

In targeting those so-called Reagan Democrats—who make up an estimated nine per cent of the electorate—Dukakis is courting a group that both parties agree could decide who wins the White House on Nov. 8. Said Lee Atwater, campaign manager for Vice-President George Bush: “This is the pivotal group in the election.”

But so far in the contest for their affections, the Democrats appear to have an edge. According to a party poll released by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week, Reagan Democrats in 18 southern and

industrial states preferred Dukakis over Bush by a margin of 56 per cent to 28 per cent. Said Democratic commentator Robert Beckel: “He has a chance to lay claim to the middle class again.” At the heart of what The Wall Street Journal called “the suburbanization” of the party is the character of the nominee himself. Said Stephen Hess, a

presidential scholar with Washington’s Brookings Institution: “It’s a strategy that’s in keeping with his psyche—as much as we know about it. It’s a good fit.” Agreed Democratic pollster Paul Maslin: “The margin of difference in this election may be in the suburbs of Houston and the suburbs of Los Angeles. It’s interesting that you now have a candidate from the suburbs. George Bush is the manor-house candidate. But Dukakis is a true suburban candidate.”

To many liberal Democrats, the party’s new middle-class image represents a disturbing betrayal of its traditional left-of-centre, working-class base. One 28-year-old convention worker—who had campaigned for former candidates Gary Hart, Paul Simon and Jesse Jack-

son before joining Dukakis—sighed with resignation as he contemplated the fall election trail. “I’ll work for Dukakis, but there’s no enthusiasm,” he said. “It’s a sad day for all of us progressives. There’s no place else for us to go right now.”

Last week, one of the most surprising defenders of the new suburbanization

was former radical Tom Hayden, now a California assemblyman, better known as Jane Fonda’s husband. Said Hayden: “Suburban voters are very important to the party’s future. They represent the success of an earlier generation of Democrats. We don’t want to lose people just because they get successful.”

The new direction—as well as the seamless tone of the convention itself— represents the triumph of moderate Democrats, still scarred by the memories of the humiliating 49-state defeat of the party’s 1984 nominee, Walter Móndale. They have spent the past four years nudging their party toward the centre, away from the fractious collection of special-interest groups that Mondale came to symbolize.

The motive is sheer necessity. As

union membership has plummeted and working-class-voter turnout has declined in recent years, Democratic loyalists have dwindled to only 40 per cent of the electorate. Moderate Democrats argued that the party could only expand by appealing to conservative, white southern males and northern ethnics who were attracted by Reagan’s celebration of free enterprise and a muscular defence.

In fact, most of the architects of that new moderation had shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Dukakis, whom they regarded as a northeastern liberal. But after their dream candidate, Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, a military hawk, declined to run, Dukakis gradually won them over with his sheer dogged success. Even Nunn bestowed his symbolic blessing on the party’s purposely vague defence platform in a speech to the convention designed to reassure his conservative southern fans.

Dukakis’s reputation as a fiscal conservative and his refusal to be tied to specific planks in the party’s economic platform won over other southern middle-of-the-road converts. Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy—a selfdescribed ultraconservative —had threatened not even to attend the convention because of his disenchantment with a northeastern liberal nominee, but, instead, he showed up to salute Dukakis for balancing the Massachusetts budget on the weekend before the governor arrived in Atlanta.

Democratic officials also report that the party’s retailored image has prompted wealthy businessmen and Fortune 500 corporations to flood party coffers with more donations than ever before. Last week, buoyed by Dukakis’s choice of Senate finance chairman Lloyd Bentsen as his running mate — a clear signal to the business community—more than 220 donors agreed to raise $100,000 each for the campaign. Said Paul Bograd, a communications director for one of the party’s corporate finance committees: “Dukakis doesn’t represent a threat to business. They know what he’s done in Massachusetts and they don’t view him as an adversary.”

The strategy of pursuing Reagan Democrats is not without its risks. In aiming its appeal at middle-class voters, the party could alienate its blue-collar faithful. Admitted former Virginia governor Charles Robb, one of the architects of the party’s centrist push: “There’s a legitimate concern on the part of some people who have been loyal. But the fact is that you cannot get an electoral majority with 40 per cent of the population.”

In fact, many labor leaders—who have watched their members flock to Reagan over recent years—quietly sup-

port the new drift. And to some convention veterans, one of this year’s most startling developments was the lowprofile role adopted by unions—despite the presence of the largest labor delegation in history. Said one party organizer from New York: “In 1984, all you saw was union delegates with beer bellies kicking up all the noise. This year, they are all lambs in pinstripes.”

Labor’s lower profile is no accident. As Ernie LaBaff, international president of the Aluminum, Brick and Glass Workers’ Union put it: “The change in labor’s role is because of what happened to Walter Mondale. There was a feeling labor came out prematurely for him and he was blasted out of the water.”

This year, the AFL-CIO, the national union federation, refused to endorse any candidate during the primaries. And after the Reagan administration vetoed Congress’s protectionist omnibus trade bill and legislation to give workers a 60-day notice before a plant closing, most unions are seeing their members flock back to the Democratic fold.

Equally discreet were feminist groups, whose influence was a factor in Mondale’s choice of former New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in 1984—a gesture some critics blamed for his loss. There was not a single woman on Dukakis’s vice-presidential shortlist. As well, the platform did not mention the inflammatory word “abortion,” but called instead for “freedom of reproductive choice.” But Eleanor Smeal, former head of the National Organization for Women, insisted, “You don’t get too exercised on that kind of thing. We’ve still got a strong platform.”

For Dukakis, convention week in Atlanta started on an anxious note. Many Jackson supporters believed that Dukakis intentionally snubbed their candidate by failing to notify the black leader about the choice of Bentsen before it became public. Said Illinois Representative Charles Hayes: “I think the leadership of the Democratic party said, ‘We’re just going to reach out to win back some of those so-called Reaganites and we don’t have to worry about Jesse.’ ” In turn, Jackson let it be known that his dinner at the governor’s Brookline house on July 4 had been “a disaster.”

Finally, realizing that Jackson’s bruised feelings could explode his election strategy, Dukakis organized a breakfast meeting in his 22nd-floor hotel suite that lasted 2V2 hours. When the two men emerged with Bentsen for a key show of unity, there were only seven hours left before the convention was called to order. Bentsen played an unexpected role in the negotiations—often stepping in to translate Jackson’s concerns and the intricacies of southern politics to the cerebral governor.

As a result of the deal that they hammered out, Jackson will play a major role in the fall campaign, complete with funds for a chartered airplane. But he also won a handful of influential posts

on the Democratic National Committee and the promise that his campaign workers would be integrated into Dukakis’s organization in all 50 states.

Many commentators credit Dukakis with emerging stronger from his confrontation with Jackson. He succeeded in a delicate balancing act, reassuring southern white conservatives by appearing not to pander to Jackson, while finally according the black leader the respect he craved as “a man who has lifted so many hearts with the dignity and the hope of his message.”

Jackson returned the gesture in a stunning and impassioned speech that brought tears to the eyes of blacks and whites alike. Invoking the threadbare patches his grandmother once sewed, he issued a call for reconciliation to fashion “a quilt of unity and common ground.”

And he graciously moved that Dukakis’s nomination be acclaimed unanimously. Indeed, his own power was confirmed in the symbolism of his seating during Dukakis’s 45-minute speech. Jackson took his place beside former president Jimmy Carter in a VIP box reserved for the party’s hierarchy.

Dukakis used his own final star turn in the convention spotlight to try to erase those doubts and issue a rallying cry to higher moral ground. Confident and expansive—his eyes brimming with a rare public glimpse of tears as he mentioned his late father—he talked of the politics of inclusion and the ennobling ideals of economic justice for all and selfless public service that tran-

scend political labels. “This election isn’t about ideology,” he said. “It’s about competence.”

That message was clearly aimed at Reagan Democrats. But one of them among the audience in Atlanta was not impressed. William Glasner—a Florida telephone technician working at the convention —shares many of the middle-class worries about economic vulnerability that Dukakis touched on in his speech, including his concern that none of his three married sons can afford their own homes. But Glasner said that he still had not decided to return to the Democratic fold. “I’m not making up my mind yet,” he said. “I have to hear what George Bush has to say first.”

— MARCI McDONALD in Atlanta