AS the Democratic Party begins to plan for 1992, some of its neoconservative elements are already calling for a move to the right on defense issues, arguing that Michael Dukakis went from a double-digit lead to a double-digit deficit because he was ``soft on defense.'' In fact, defense was a non-issue in the crucial month when voters climbed onto the Bush bandwagon, and the voters who jumped to George Bush were not the ``tough on defense'' voters. Democrats should put to bed the myth of the defense dilemma, and should move toward 1992 with a strengthened commitment to both nuclear and conventional arms control and to a ceiling on military spending.
The polls show that Mr. Dukakis's double-digit lead turned sour in August - a month before the ``soft on defense'' issue was raised (even in commercials or by surrogates), and a full two months before Mr. Bush himself started to attack on the issue.
But more important, the change came about during the time that Bush was talking about a kinder and gentler nation - not a more heavily armed one.
Further, the polls show that the voters who abandoned Dukakis in August were not the constituencies supporting a ``tough on defense'' policy, but rather were (a)women: a 24-point lead in June disappeared by mid-September, and women ultimately broke even on election day; and (b)younger voters: a nearly 20-point lead in Atlanta started evaporating in August, and by election day they voted for Bush.
The ``tough on defense'' voters were either already with Bush (e.g., the Southern voter) or did not take a position until long after Bush surged ahead (as in the case of the Reagan Democrats, a majority of whom, in the end, ``came home'' to the Democrats). In short, the ``tough on defense'' voters were not swing voters.
Finally, ``defense,'' traditionally defined as military power, simply was not a big issue for the American voter in 1988. While there were clear differences between the candidates on specific weapons systems, there was little difference between them on the level of the military budget or on the general approach to the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.
Also, polls taken throughout the campaign cycle showed that military security issues rarely appeared on voters' lists of top five issues: one GOP pollster shortly before election day found that an all-time low of only 8 percent of the voters named a foreign policy issue as their most important issue.
Insofar as defense did have an impact, Dukakis's problems were caused far less by his support for arms control than by two other factors: his failure to define, clearly and coherently, an overall national security policy; and his lack of experience in foreign policy - frequently cited by voters as a negative. The Bush media team cleverly capitalized on these weaknesses - picturing not only a somber Bush shaking hands with Mr. Gorbachev, but also a grinning Dukakis seemingly playing war games in his battle tank.
Before a ``soft on defense'' myth develops, we should remember the factors that did play a key role in the campaign: the use of symbols (especially Willie Horton), the absence of a prompt counterattack to those symbols, the declining importance of party affiliation, and the state of the economy. Perhaps the most important factor, if election day exit polls are to be believed, was the personal image of the candidate - especially the qualities of experience and competence.
Neo-conservative Democrats who try to finger the defense issue as the loser in 1988 can be expected in the months ahead to urge a ``go slow'' approach on a START treaty, to embrace modernization of all legs of our strategic triad, and perhaps even to backtrack on arms control victories won in 1988.
The wiser heads in the Democratic Party will assert that we already have sufficient deterrence; that the arms control process must continue and be strengthened by negotiating both arms reductions and qualitative restraints - including an end to nuclear testing; that an arms race in space must be averted; and that now, when the United States is grappling with a huge deficit, and the USSR is struggling to reform its economy, is the time to seize the opportunity to hold down military budgets.
The lesson of 1988 is that strong support for nuclear arms control and improved relations with the USSR under Gorbachev did not turn the election. In planning for 1992, the Democrats would be well served to look at the facts of 1988, not the myths.