IF Michael Dukakis does not win the presidency next week, it will not be because liberalism failed him. It may more fairly be said that he failed liberalism. Nearly every Democratic candidate for the past half century has faced a public predisposed to vote for a ``conservative'' president. The Gallup Organization began in the late 1930s to ask whether the public wanted the conservative or the liberal party to win. In every election since then, except for the Johnson-Goldwater campaign of 1964, the public has said it preferred the conservative side. Nonetheless, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Carter overcame this conservative preference.
There is a paradox regarding liberalism, as political scientists note. For 200 years, since the founding of the American democracy, its political values have been assertively liberal: the values of individual freedom; freedom from government (especially royalist government) intrusion; individual opportunity, have been what Americans wanted to conserve. Americans also believe in fair play and equality - and when whole classes of people, such as blacks denied basic rights before the 1960s, are perceived as unjustly treated, redress will not be denied. When such values are in place for two centuries, they become the norm to preserve.
Conservatism can also be an expression, in social issue areas, of the public's feeling that we are failing as a society. In matters of crime, drugs, and family instability, liberalism becomes a term for permissiveness, a general complaint that we're not doing as well as we should. As a programmatic term describing European-style social democratic initiatives, liberalism has been slow to come to America. Collective solutions to crises such as widespread unemployment and failures of banks came about only with the extreme pressure of the depression. Conservatism also has its own paradox: denial of state intervention in commerce, but acceptance of it in matters of privacy and a woman's right to make decisions on pregnancy.
In this election, some traditional signs of conservatism such as isolationism are missing. Ronald Reagan came into office eight years ago with a bit of the old motto ``Don't tread on me'' in his rhetoric. Under then-Treasury Secretary James Baker III, the administration aggressively pushed the dollar down to promote American trade abroad and to head off protectionist legislation. Both George Bush and Michael Dukakis are internationalists in trade matters.
In the past half century, Americans have seen tremendous advances in opportunities for higher education - first to men under the GI Bill, which offered college training to those from working-class backgrounds, and then to women to the degree that women today are the majority on campuses. Education has long been seen by Americans as the great equalizer of opportunity. Progress for women in the workplace and in the board room has been advancing from the merely token - but has by no means achieved the equivalence of men and women in position and achievement that ability alone would demand. Gender justice remains an unfulfilled liberal agenda item.
The times are requiring greater self-reliance, a conservative theme, as ties to family, community, and employer have become more tenuous. This is in part because of technological change, world economic conditions that pit American companies against those abroad that benefit from cheaper labor, and less-than-lifetime personal commitments.
Mr. Bush has taken better advantage of this shift in conditions.
Mr. Dukakis has come late to owning up to the Democratic tradition of FDR, Truman, Johnson, Kennedy, and Carter. He should not have been so timid. After all, Democrats as well as Republicans can make the case for conserving liberal values.