`What's my line?' and the debates

GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS and Vice-President George Bush tried to sound presidential during their debates. They did. Mr. Dukakis sounded like Ronald Reagan, and Mr. Bush sounded like John Kennedy. Dukakis, like Mr. Reagan, does not talk of a tax rise, but rather says, ``We've got to go out there and collect billions and billions of dollars in taxes owed that aren't being paid in this country.'' And, just like Reagan, the governor is calling for economic growth while also calling for a balanced budget (see: voodoo economics, archaic usage). Candidate Dukakis blames the current administration for a dangerous buildup of national debt and budget deficits - the same tactic used so effectively by candidate Reagan against then-President Jimmy Carter.

Dukakis supports the Stealth (B-2) bomber, the advanced cruise missile, and a costly expansion of conventional forces. While he will cut a few procurement programs, it sounds as if he backs a big, Reaganesque defense that takes nearly a third of the federal budget. Dukakis even favors continued research of ``star wars.''

On the home front, Dukakis's assertion that he turned Massachusetts from ``an economic basket case into a showplace'' echoes candidate Reagan's claims in 1976 and 1980. As for trade, Dukakis, like Reagan, backs a free-trade policy while ``standing tough'' against countries that block American goods from entering. The Duke says ``tough choices'' have to be made about spending. It's ``tough'' talk reminiscent of Reagan.

Like Kennedy, Bush enters the campaign as a devout budget balancer (Kennedy balanced budgets better than Dwight Eisenhower). Bush also supports a capital-gains tax cut, just as Kennedy did. He wants the economy's growth to ``continue so that everybody participates'' in the recovery. The supply-siders' favorite trick is to cut taxes to increase growth and therefore revenues. It is the same ``magic'' that Kennedy's advisers invented in 1960.

On the social issues, Bush calls for rural redevelopment, which Kennedy embraced after he drove through depressed areas of West Virginia in the 1960 campaign. Indeed, Bush seeks a Kennedy-like ``kinder, gentler nation'' through Head Start and the Women-Infants-Children nutrition program, through mainstreaming the disabled, and through volunteer programs such as Youth Engaged in Service to America (YES).

These proposals resemble the Kennedy legacies of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the Peace Corps, and the Youth Conservation Corps. The ghosts of the New Frontier warriors are well pleased.

This former director of the central intelligence sees a continuing threat from the Soviet Union and supports a variety of new weapons systems - the successors to those intended to fill the ``missile gap'' about which Kennedy scored so many political points during his campaign. ``Peace through strength'' was a Kennedy theme, also. Bush is calling for continued negotiation with the Soviets to limit nuclear weapons, continuing the legacy of Kennedy's test ban treaty.

In fact, just as Kennedy acted to take blame for the Bay of Pigs and received credit in the Berlin crisis and the Cuban missile crisis, Bush said, ``I will take all the blame [for dealing with Manuel Antonio Noriega and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] if you give me half the credit for all the good things that have happened.''

Why all this protective covering by both candidates? What are they camouflaging? Perhaps they are not trying to hide at all. These two candidates are just the latest in a long series of politicians who practice the art of political preemption: Get credit for what your opponent may really want to do but cannot politically. Only Reagan could get away with the highest peacetime deficit in this century. Only Richard Nixon could go to China. Only Lyndon Johnson could press for civil rights legislation. And only Kennedy could get away with the Bay of Pigs and cutting corporate income taxes.

The two candidates are not fools. They know that they need to appeal to a broader constituency. They also know that their political camouflage will give them the political credibility, flexibility, and opportunity they will need as president.

If the governor and vice-president are successful in leapfrogging their respective opposition now, then whoever is elected may find an opportunity for a bold stroke or two. Unfortunately, the voters are the ones who end up confused, confounded, and alienated as all this posturing goes on. It's tough enough to choose a president when there are two candidates running with distinct positions; it's even tougher when the candidates act like the mystery guest on ``What's My Line?'' asking us to discover the real identity under their disguise.

David Zlowe is a researcher in fiscal policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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