A campaign stumbling from lack of vision

DEAR Voter, Have you noticed that neither presidential candidate is appealing to the higher aspirations and nobler feelings of the electorate? Instead, the appeal is mainly to their fears. Where is the vision?

It was as absent in the first debate as it has been during the campaign.

George Bush would have you shake in your boots over the prospect of a liberal, big-spending Michael Dukakis raising your taxes if he enters the White House. He would also want you to quake over how conciliatory Mr. Dukakis would be in dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Governor Dukakis says you must fear the economic future if Mr. Bush is elected - that the economy is headed for disaster unless a President Dukakis can put America's economic house in order.

A fear-filled campaign sends the contest toward the low road. Also, a rat-a-tat-tat of accusations from both sides has lowered the level of the race.

Most observers seem to have forgotten that this barrage of unfounded charges began with the Democrats' effort to portray Bush as a ``wimp.'' To the public the word means the candidate has no backbone and that he is embarrassingly silly. To have such a word attached to you is no laughing matter. It can defeat you.

Then the Democrats at their convention sought to portray Bush as privileged and, therefore, unable to understand the problems of the less wealthy. ``Poor George Bush,'' the man with the ``silver foot in his mouth,'' combined the ``wimp'' and ``unfeeling-rich-man'' image. The quip drew a lot of laughs. But it was the kind of scornful rhetoric that hurts. And it simply wasn't true.

Bush struck back, but in so doing he overdid it. He has to know Dukakis is as much a patriot as he is. Yet, despite denials expressed during the debate, the vice president's use of the so-called ``pledge-of-allegiance'' issue has contained possible inferences of something less than patriotism on Dukakis's part.

That barb seems to have been aimed at raising voter anxieties over how Dukakis would deal with the Soviets. So was Bush's comment that Dukakis was a ``card-carrying member of the ACLU.'' True, Dukakis used that phrase about himself - but in another context. He said in an interview that even though he was a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union he might well, under some circumstances, be very tough in dealing with pornography.

Then there was Sen. Steve Symms's completely unsupported charge that Kitty Dukakis once burned a flag. I'm sure Bush winces over that.

In the days of glasnost such demagoguery doesn't have much rhetorical force. The fears that pervaded the United States during the days of Joseph McCarthy have long since vanished. But such accusations still carry a sting; they imply the person being so charged would be soft in negotiating with the Soviets.

At a Monitor breakfast group in 1968 the newly selected vice-presidential candidate, Spiro Agnew, said the Democrats' presidential candidate, Hubert Humphrey, was ``squishy soft on communism.'' His charge clearly said: Mr. Humphrey is a liberal and because he is a liberal he is sympathetic to the Soviets. It was a cheap shot. But it didn't help Humphrey with the voters.

Twenty years later, tying a liberal political position with being soft on communism is still damaging - and demagogic.

What concerns me is that, in this context of fear and demagoguery, the election process itself may not fulfill its intended result of unifying the electorate behind a new president.

The British historian Denis Brogan has written most approvingly of this unifying influence of the US presidential campaign. He says the process is well suited to a heterogeneous society where the people are sharply divided in their views because of differences in geography, religion, race, color, and so on. The conventions and campaigns provide the voters with an opportunity to air their differing views. But eventually, he adds, the voters support the winner.

This is usually true. But this election isn't lifting the rhetoric above fears, charges, and the uninspiring goal of deciding who is more competent.

The new president will probably be given a honeymoon of public and congressional support. But how long will it last? The first adversity he runs into may end that unity - and his ability to lead.

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

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