Dukakis takes off gloves for final rounds. Lights into Bush on social security and savings plan
Washington — Biff! Bang! Pow! Michael Dukakis has come out slugging after his indecisive debate with George Bush.
Republicans and Democrats agree that Mr. Dukakis has no choice. With only 39 days before the election, he must strike often and hard at Vice-President Bush in an effort to turn the campaign his way.
All week, the governor has peppered Bush with attacks. He has mocked Bush's proposed savings plan for the middle class; he's chided him for favoring his wealthy pals; he's ridiculed the level of ethics in the Reagan-Bush White House; he's tried to scare voters about Bush and social security.
Dukakis's allies are wondering why he didn't do this long ago.
The governor's aggressive strategy comes at a time when even some Democratic insiders are admitting that Dukakis is losing the race. Public opinion, which has been wavering for months, now has begun to firm up. Bush is settling in with a 3- to 7-point lead, depending on the poll.
Paul Allen Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University, says Dukakis faces tough going.
``I think any Democrat would have trouble beating Bush, for there are so many things, like the economy, going in his direction,'' Dr. Beck says. ``The only thing that has kept it close is Bush's weakness as a candidate.''
Beck suggests that Dukakis has failed to crystallize any issues to excite the voters. Clearly, there are serious problems ahead: the federal deficit, the savings and loan crisis, loss of high-paying jobs to Asia, the trade deficit.
``These are things that Dukakis to some degree has talked about. But he has not been able to do what Reagan has done in the past - take individual problems and weave them into broader themes. Bush hasn't done it either, but he doesn't need to, for he is the incumbent, in a sense.''
Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar, marvels that Dukakis has failed to be even tougher.
In the debate, Dukakis never mentioned ethical problems in the Reagan administration - Ed Meese, Michael Deaver, Lyn Nofziger, and others. Mr. Hess was puzzled by that.
``Unless you've got the personality and the issues going for you, you've got to make the most of the hand you were dealt. The strange thing is, in the debate Dukakis was willing to go after [Panamanian strong man Manuel Antonio] Noriega and Iran-contra, but he seemed almost to have forgotten to mention ... Meese.''
Yet Hess observes that Dukakis can easily overstep the line as he parries against Bush. He cautions:
``I found the social security attack this week to be the first thing Dukakis has done that I really do think smacks of demagoguery. There's no clue, serious clue, that George Bush is going to lower anybody's social security checks. Dukakis found an old quote and used it out of context.''
Dukakis charged that Bush had broken a Senate tie while vice-president to delay a rise in the cost-of-living increase. That was true. But the governor went on to say that in 1980, Bush had described social security as ``basically a welfare program.''
ABC News dug up the old footage of Bush, where he did say that social security had become ``largely a welfare program.'' But Dukakis omitted the next sentence by Bush:
``I think it's not keeping the trust with those people that have saved, and I guess the bottom line is just keep that social security trust fund sound.''
Dukakis also attacked Bush's plan to offer ``individual savings accounts.'' As Bush explained it, citizens could contribute up to $1,000 a year to a savings account, with the interest accumulating tax free.
Tax savings would amount to only $20 a year on each $1,000 saved. But Bush said it would help taxpayers ``become better able to afford a home, pay for college, or start a business.''
``Twenty bucks!'' Dukakis jeered, waving a $20 bill in front of a crowd in Pennsylvania. ``That's his solution for the average American. ... He says it will make it possible for us to afford a home. Twenty bucks! Pay for college. Twenty bucks!''
``George Bush plays Santa Claus to the wealthy, and Ebenezer Scrooge for the rest of us,'' Dukakis said.
Dukakis threw other one-liners at Bush this week. Referring to former Republican officials who have worked as lobbyists for foreign governments, he said: ``My staff is going to pledge allegiance to only one flag - and that's Old Glory.''
The jibes may not turn the polls around. But they reflect an energized Dukakis campaign. Professor Beck says: ``Don't write Dukakis off. He could still pull this out.''