Flimflam and the art of ticket balancing

TICKET balancing is the overriding problem of this convention. The particularly long stretch from Michael Dukakis's liberalism to Lloyd Bentsen's conservatism is putting a heavy and almost unbearable burden on the delegates. Most of them see and accept this as needed pragmatism. But no one likes the mental gymnastics required to support two candidates who are poles apart. Senator Bentsen's record on civil rights is, to be sure, quite good, particularly for a Texan. But one would think that Mr. Dukakis would be less than comfortable running with a teammate who, on so many other vital issues, takes positions far removed from his own.

For example: Mr. Bentsen's backing of military aid to the Nicaraguan contras, his support for the MX missile and the Strategic Defense Initiative, his acceptance of campaign contributions from political-action committees, his support for school prayer, and his votes in favor of all the major pieces of Reaganomics - not to speak of his opposition to gun control, labor-law reform, and federally funded abortions.

The voters, certainly, are used to this cynical political exercise. ``It's the way it's done,'' is the rationale supplied by both parties over the years as they make slates for presidential elections.

But isn't it time to ask whether it's fair to the voters to give them a ticket made up of candidates who are worlds apart philosophically and miles apart on the issues? Furthermore, at a time when the public is clearly bone weary of unethical conduct in government, both on the executive and the congressional side, is it acceptable to calculatedly present voters with a ticket that says two completely contradictory things? Indeed, isn't this a kind of ``con'' game the voters have accepted so long that they think it's acceptable? Put succinctly, if unrealistically, shouldn't the voters open their windows and shout, ``We won't take it anymore!''

I put this question, in just this way, to the star of the 1984 Democratic convention, Gov. Mario Cuomo - whose voice, incidentally, is not being given prominent display here in Atlanta. He said, ``No, I don't think it's an ethical question at all. By putting the question in that way you are on the very edge of demeaning the electorate. What you are suggesting is that they are not capable of making their own judgment as to whether this union is complementary or contradictory.''

Mr. Cuomo went on to say that the vice-president subordinates his views to the president: ``There is no better example of this than that of George Bush. That's true of everybody's vice-president. You are sublimated when you are vice-president.

He continued, ``Now that the American public understands this - and I think it is fair if you are honest about the positions of the two candidates and put the question to the American people: `Do you like this arrangement or don't you?' - it's not unfair to ask the people to judge you. And that's what's being done.

``All Dukakis is saying is that `I want to speak to the people in Texas, to the people in this country, who are not with me on every single issue.' Also, remember the broad spectrum we have to cover as Democrats. No, I don't think it is unfair.''

Well, there it is, the conventional view - one likely to prevail for a long time. The two-party system almost mandates pragmatic balancing as a means of bringing diverse groups under the same umbrella. But that system is not constitutionally authorized. In time, we might move to three or four or even more major parties where each party would represent one philosophical thrust. But at this time, we should at least be recognizing the flimflam involved in ticket balancing - particularly this pairing of complete opposites in Atlanta.

Several Democrats I have talked to have said that they thought Bentsen was more like George Bush than like Dukakis. Dukakis says of his appointment of Bentsen, ``I clearly didn't want a clone of Michael Dukakis.'' He certainly didn't get one. Indeed, Mr. Bush was perceived by voters to be more liberal than Bentsen when they faced each other in a race in Texas some years ago. Conservative Bentsen won.

It was, as we well know, ticket balancing that aroused Jesse Jackson to anger - and to his challenge of Dukakis. The Rev. Mr. Jackson felt he deserved serious consideration for the No. 2 spot. He never really got it. Oh yes, he met with the Massachusetts governor. And he heard he was on the ``short list.'' But he knew this was pro forma. He knew that Dukakis believed polls which showed that it would be very difficult for a Jackson-Dukakis ticket to win - and that, therefore, Dukakis was looking elsewhere for a running mate.

It was not just Jackson's color that was considered such a tremendous liability. It was his liberalism. His positions on a number of important issues tended to jibe with Dukakis's basically liberal persuasion - instead of appealing to the more conservative voters Democrats feel they must win to their side if they are to prevail in the presidential election.

It is understandable why Jackson thought he was unfairly passed over. He can cite polls indicating that a Dukakis-Jackson victory, though difficult, was still a possibility. But more than that, Jackson can justifiably say that his approach to issues - which emphasizes help for the poor and disadvantaged and deemphasizes spending for defense - is in line with the ``soul of the Democratic Party.'' He can say, and rightly, that this is what the Massachusetts Democratic Party stands for, what Sen. Edward Kennedy stands for, and what all real liberals believe.

That's why Jackson has caused so much turmoil here. He doesn't just represent delegates who are unhappy with the way they feel their candidate is being treated. As a New York Times poll confirmed, he also represents the deep-down idealism a majority of Democrats embrace, including most of Dukakis's own delegates.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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