US politics, 1988

THE 1988 American presidential campaign is concluding as it began, with Republican George Bush attacking his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as being soft on crime, soft on defense, and insufficiently patriotic (because he had vetoed a bill for a compulsory oath of allegiance to the flag in Massachusetts public schools). And it draws to its close with Mr. Dukakis having to counter these blows rather than dealing with real national issues.

It has been a brilliantly successful campaign for Mr. Bush, largely because the Dukakis team was not prepared for such personalized abuse and was slow in building up the answers, although it should have been fairly easy. None of the charges are objectively fair or accurate.

Because of the above nature of the campaign, we, the voters, know nothing more now than we did at the beginning about how the two rival candidates propose to deal with the federal debt and the federal deficit. Nor do we know any more about the real qualifications of the two men for this task.

Now, as in the beginning, we know that Dukakis has presided over the unusual prosperity of Massachusetts with sufficient skill to be now in his third term as governor. The state's prosperity rose during his tenure, crime declined, and a start was made on attacking the pollution of Boston Harbor.

But he is virtually a stranger to Washington and to the workings of the federal system.

Now, as at the beginning, we know that Bush has had nearly 20 years in Washington, is familiar with its leading figures and its ways of doing business. But he has not during those nearly 20 years become identified publicly with any major cause and, so far as the public record shows, has not made a difficult policy decision or even been a member of the inner policymaking group.

We must choose between a man who knows Washington but has made no known important decisions against a man who has made many hard decisions, in a middle-size state, but scarcely knows Washington. It is a poor choice. We have a right to complain about a system that gives us such insufficient information about the relative competence of the contenders.

Thanks to some hard reporting in the Washington Post last week, we know exactly how things came to this pass.

On May 26, the team of Bush's political advisers conducted a test. They gathered 30 ``Reagan Democrats,'' all of whom said they expected to vote for Dukakis, into a room in Paramus, N.J. The Bush advisers watched through one-way glass while a researcher told the 30 about the Massachusetts furlough program, the veto of the oath of allegiance, and the pollution of Boston Harbor. Half of the 30 were reconverted.

The advisers went from Paramus to Kennebunkport, Maine, over the weekend. The results showed up first on June 9 at the Texas Republican convention. Bush called Dukakis a ``liberal,'' alleged that he was opposed to all ``improvement'' in United States strategic missiles, would raise taxes, and would employ a foreign policy ``born in Harvard Yard's boutiques.''

On June 22, Bush accused Dukakis of being ``soft on crime,'' and for the first time used the Willie Horton horror story as evidence. Soft on patriotism came a little later.

This week, the Bush campaign was using all these themes harder than ever. The litany has preempted the dialogue of the campaign. It has deprived us, the voters, of any valuable addition to our knowledge of the competence of the two men. It has proved that there is a streak of ruthlessness in Bush. It has also proved a streak of naivet'e in Dukakis. He should have known that the Republican Party, which once deliberately encouraged Joe McCarthy in groundless slander (Sen. Robert Taft told him to keep it up), would not wage the campaign on real issues.

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