From Washington: Can it be? Michael Dukakis leading George Bush by 10 to 15 points in the national public opinion polls? All over town Democrats exult, Republicans fret, astonished as much at the size of the VP's negatives in the polls as they are in this early Dukakis lead. The Bush team, which has counted on Dukakis as being seen "the liberal," are getting edgy as they realize the Duke isn't playing their game. Dukakis is no Mondale. In David Broder's Washington Post column May 18, Dukakis is chastised for refusing to discuss tax increases as a necessary solution to the deficit problem; the governor insists on the campaign trail that "New taxes ought to be a last resort, not a first resort." Says Broder: "If the Democratic nominee is going to offer only his version of Reagan's dessert-first-vegetables-later policy, what is the election all about?"
On page 1 of the May 18 Post is further evidence that Dukakis is more interested in winning than in playing liberal. A trial balloon out of the Dukakis camp puts Senator Bill Bradley at the top of the list (with Ohio's John Glenn) as the current running-mate favorite. (We assume Bradley would accept a direct offer.) Bradley is not only the leader of the global growth wing of the Democratic Party, with great appeal to blue-collar Joe Sixpack, he's also the favorite Democrat of corporate America! With Bradley at the elbow of a President Dukakis, policies foreign and domestic would surely be sensible. At least so the thinking goes in the board rooms. Incredibly, Bush so far has been on the defensive during this Reagan-inspired non-inflationary economic boom while Dukakis stakes out the economic growth terrain as his own.
The buzzword around Bush headquarters is "define," as in, "We realize George has yet to define himself." By this they mean the voters do not yet know where Bush stands. The internal debate is among several schools of thought on the correct timing of this Bush definition, when they will reveal where he stands — after the Democratic convention in July, at the GOP convention in August, or during the fall campaign. My guess is they really don't know how to proceed, how to react to this Dukakis surge, and have frozen themselves over the sterile question of timing. Nobody really knows where Bush stands, deep down, which means he can't really define himself in prepared speeches. He will have to insert himself into ongoing controversies of public policy, purposely putting himself under pressure, allowing us to observe where he stands when he's under fire. For this he has to separate himself from the President, to stop being the Vice President and act as if he were already the Party leader. Advice of this sort is coming to him from several quarters and meets little resistance. At the moment there's no consensus on how or when this separation from the President should be accomplished. My advice to the Bush campaign, when asked, is to stake out an independent position on the trade bill.
Indeed, Bush is said to be more concerned about the protectionist elements of the trade bill than is the White House, but there's great reluctance to raise these questions. The Beltway Buzz, inspired by Treasury Secretary Baker, is that if there is no trade bill this year, a much more onerous protectionist bill would pass in 1989. Bush would not only have to separate himself from the President, but also from his ally, Jim Baker. The dilemma is the same one that confronted Richard Nixon in 1960 and Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Both President Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson were more concerned with putting the finishing touches to their legacies than in getting their vice presidents elected. Reagan will surely campaign ardently for Bush, but this will do nothing for his "definition." If Bush will not risk irking Jim Baker over the trade bill, the biggest issue facing the world economy at the moment, he will contribute to a definition that is not very pleasant.
After talking to several smart people in Washington this week, my guess is that unless the Veep intervenes, the trade bill will be signed into law after it is vetoed, the veto sustained in the Senate, and the plant closing provision stripped out of it. There are too many special interests being fed by the trade bill's goodies for Jim Wright's warnings of no trade bill to be anything but a bluff. And I'm certainly not concerned that 1989 would produce a worse bill. If Bush won, he'd have a popular mandate and the support of enough GOP Senators to prevent a veto override on trade. If Dukakis won, the Democrats would be more wary of fathering a trade war with one of their own in the Oval Office, the GOP free of any blame. Besides, Dukakis has been better on trade than most other Democrats. It would also be encouraging to see Bill Bradley his running mate, knowing Bradley would have a positive influence in this area. The shift in capital flows that is occurring globally, as evidenced by the recent trade balance adjustments, also points to less political tension over trade in 1989 than there has been this year.
Just as it was foolish for the Bush people to be counting their chickens a month ago, gleefully stitching together an Electoral College victory in November, it would be foolish now to see Dukakis as being stronger than he is. The Bush strategists are correct when they observe that the Democrats have occupied the political landscape since March, when it was clear Bush was the GOP nominee. Dukakis has benefited enormously by having Jesse Jackson alone with him in the race, on his left and constantly accusing Dukakis of not being a liberal! Also, believe it or not, the Bush campaign is almost broke. It has run so close to its spending ceiling that it can't raise more money and thus can't spend on advertising until the convention is over in August.
The Dukakis surge will continue at least through July, until Bush has his innings at the New Orleans convention. Dukakis has shown himself to be a fine politician, with good instincts, a deft sense of timing and self-restraint. The Bush team now knows this and is no longer counting chickens. This is all to the good. They surely realize their limitations because they are clearly reaching out beyond their inner circle for advice and ideas. They still harbor hopes of painting Dukakis as a liberal, as if the label itself were anathema to the electorate. They also believe they can gain by discrediting the governor's "Massachusetts' Miracle," another dead end. The voters of Massachusetts certified the credit the Duke deserves by giving him a landslide victory last time out.
No, Dukakis is successfully defining himself. He's not a liberal, in this definition, but a growth Democrat who leans toward government mandated solutions. Mandated health care, mandated plant closing announcements, mandated allocations of resources, managed trade, and more efficient tax collections. This leaves George Bush plenty of room for debate, plenty of room for appeal to an electorate that might still prefer growth through private initiative, plant closing announcements arranged through collective bargaining, plant openings invited by lower capital gains tax rates and enterprise zones, free trade, and greater tax revenues through greater growth. I don't know for sure, but I'm almost persuaded that George Bush has come to believe in all this and that eventually we will see him emerge as this kind of candidate. And if it's going to be Dukakis-Bradley, I'd bet it will be Bush-Kemp. It would give us a helluva race, one the voters couldn't lose.