Michael Dukakis continues to play his political hand brilliantly while the Vice President continues to spin his wheels, stuck in the mud. The headlines over the weekend and in this morning's papers hammer home the message that the centrist Dukakis forces in the Democratic Party have defeated the liberal Jesse Jackson wing in writing the party platform. The Duke drew the line against corporate and personal income tax hikes, recognition of the PLO, and all manner of liberal totems. Dukakis is doing to Bush what Bush did to Jack Kemp in the GOP intramurals, taking his issues away from him. Dukakis has become the candidate of economic growth and Bush, making the same mistake Kemp made, is responding with trivial pursuit, trying to persuade voters that Dukakis is not really what he says he is, that he can't be trusted because he once raised taxes, vetoed a pledge of allegiance bill, and furloughed some felons. The Bush campaign, like Kemp's, is being run by imagemakers and pollsters who disagree among themselves now that things seem so bleak, with Roger Ailes battling Bob Teeter, and Bush running a negative campaign on alternate days, positive on others.
Things are hardly as desperate as they might seem, though. Bush is bound to be far behind Dukakis until the August convention when he gets his first serious shot at reviving national public opinion, which is now summering. Bush has four pivotal areas where he will score or not score, deciding his own fate this fall: 1) The party platform; 2) his acceptance speech in New Orleans; 3) his post-Labor Day media campaign; 4) his debates with Dukakis. Dukakis, of course, has the same areas for scoring, handling the first with A+ precision. Bush has time to prepare for each of these and how he comes down on them will be critical. He could easily win because he has the advantage of a successful Reagan administration under his belt while Dukakis has papered over the deep problems in his party.
Bush clearly needs Jim Baker to leave Treasury and take over the campaign (bringing Dick Darman with him). At the moment there is no campaign strategist able to match the Dukakis team. Lee Atwater, the campaign manager, was sufficient to overwhelm his competitors in the GOP primaries, but he isn't heavy enough to move the campaign onto a presidential track. It's a daily in-and-out basket of tactics. Today pledge of allegiance, tomorrow the drought, with Bob Dole headed for the GOP ticket so Bush can garner "the farm vote." There's still no sense of the scope of a Bush presidency and growing euphoria in Democratic ranks of a sweep in November. With JBIII and DD, the campaign could gel.
But don't get excited or alarmed about any of this. It's still early, early in the contest, and the race won't be decided until the last few weeks. The Bush campaign will shake down by then. And if it doesn't, Dukakis might not turn out to be too bad anyway. He already looks much better than Fritz Mondale. And like Bush, a President Dukakis would also have the advantage of an expanding world economy, courtesy of RR. The prospect of a Dukakis administration certainly does not turn me into a bear.