An Insider's View of the Election

Our author visits the political pros in four battleground states and is reminded that the swing vote in the November election is not conservative or liberal, northern or southern, young or old, black or Hispanic--it's the white middle class.


The Reagan revolution, it can be argued, began exactly ten years ago in California. On June 6, 1978, California primary voters voted 65 to 35 percent in favor of Proposition 13, the Jarvis-Gann property-tax limitation measure. It was an exhilarating experience. The voters literally took the law into their own hands and, defying the ominous predictions of the political establishment, voted themselves one of the biggest tax cuts in American political history. Tax-revolt fever immediately spread across the country, and state after state passed measures explicitly imitative of Proposition 13. This wave of anti-tax, anti-government sentiment culminated two years later in the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency and in the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate. Interestingly, Reagan himself had virtually nothing to do with Proposition 13. His own tax initiative had failed at the California polls in 1973, and he was wary of supporting the more radical 1978 measure.

One of Reagan's first actions as President, and the one with the most decisive implications for the future, was the 1981 federal income-tax cut. Reagan did to the federal government what Proposition 13 did to California: he pulled the revenue plug. The result in both California and the nation was a new era of government retrenchment. The symbol of the Reagan era in American politics is the tremendous federal budget deficit. The symbol of the Proposition 13 era in California is the steady deterioration of public services. Both systems have been protected by coalitions of voters sharing an interest in low taxes and limited government. Reagan presides over this coalition in Washington, and George Deukmejian, Reagan's loyal ally from his days as governor of California, presides over the coalition back home. Even though both chief executives were elected, and then reelected by bigger majorities, it is not clear that their limited-government coalitions have put down deep roots. Both Reagan and Deukmejian face hostile legislatures controlled by Democrats. And both nationwide and in California a growing body of evidence suggests that public sentiment is shifting. Because the Reagan revolution started in California, any signs of backtracking there will have portentous implications for its future.

Proposition 13 was not only the one measure. It was a movement. It gave rise to cuts in inventory and inheritance taxes, and to the indexation of state income-tax rates to inflation. According to Gray Davis, the state comptroller, the aggregate revenue loss resulting from Proposition 13 amounts to $20 billion a year, or half the current state budget. It also gave rise, in 1979, to the Gann initiative, which limits spending by state and local governments to an amount equivalent to their 1978-1979 budgets adjusted for inflation and population growth. The spending cap can be overriden only through special local initiatives.

The Gann initiative seemed innocuous in 1979, because it had provisions for inflation and population growth. There was no provision for the expansion of public needs, however. As it turned out, the spending cap was not a problem so long as inflation remained high. But inflation dropped, and last year, for the first time, state spending bumped up against the Gann limit. As a result, the state wrote rebate checks to California taxpayers totaling more than $1 billion. According to the California pollster Mervin Field, a large majority of Californians favored using the money for education. In fact, an organized campaign asked taxpayers to turn over their rebate checks to their local school districts. In the view of Robert Naylor, the Republican state chairman, Governor Deukmejian "risked looking insensitive" on the education issue by getting involved in a dispute with the state superintendent of public instruction. The Gann initiative would have permitted turning the money over to local districts that had not hit their spending limits. The governor wouldn't hear of it.

Many Californians I spoke to believed that Proposition 13 has paralyzed the political system and made it unresponsive to shifts in public sentiment. "It was a psychological problem exacerbated by lack of leadership," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a California political writer. "I sense that public opinion has turned." According to Tom Quinn, who ran the state's environmental regulatory services under Governor Jerry Brown, "There have been major retrenchments in terms of any kind of planning for the future. We're not building highways. We're not thinking about how we're going to provide transportation twenty years from now. This is becoming a lousy place to live." Field told me that, according to his polls, the California public has increasingly come to acknowledge "a gradual, obvious, palpable deterioration of public services." He saw no evidence of a counterrevolution, however. "The public still likes Proposition 13," Field said. "Any effort to repeal it would be suicidal."

The key to California politics is, of course, the state's vast middle class. It was their revolt, after all, that created Proposition 13, the Gann initiative, and, ultimately, the Reagan revolution. The concerns of middle-class Californians have clearly been drifting away from taxes and toward public services, whose amount and quality inescapably impinge on the lives of all Californians. But how far? Talking to Californians, one gets different images of the middle-class voter. "The middle class feels shortchanged," said Davis, who is contemplating making a run for governor in 1990. "How can their children compete in an information society if forty-six other states are investing more in the future than we are? At some point that feeling will permit a more progressive use of the money that comes into the state." A member of the California assembly offered a slightly different image of the middle-class voter: "People are driving around, frustrated, listening to their car radios, choking, spending two and a half hours a day in an automobile to go to work for seven hours," he said, "only to be told that it is a profile in courage to raise taxes and take more money out of their checkbook." This defense of the middle-class taxpayer came from none other than Tom Hayden, the former sixties radical and now a Democratic assemblyman from Santa Monica.

It is a case of competing cliches. On the one hand, the California voter is an individualist, suspicious and distrustful of government. Michael Berman, a political consultant, told me, "Californians have a perfect understanding that government is not a major factor in their lives. People see their potential here as more a function of the individual and his abilities and less a function of government doing something for them." On the other hand, the pollster Richard Maullin said, "The great population influx that occurred during and after World War Two has been of people without tremendous means, who depend on the public sector for a lot of the higher standard of living they enjoy here. The state's economy and its good life have benefited from a willingness to tax itself and put money into public enterprise."

I asked Kevin Starr, a noted California historian, to sort out the inconsistent images for me. "The federal government was the midwife to the western states," he said. "These states had no previous sovereignties, no previous identifications, no cultural traditions." He described the relationship of the federal government to westerners as "almost parental," adding, "The federal government is perceived with the apprehension of a child to a parent, with all the possibilities of affirmation and repudiation." In other words, Californians have an ambivalent attitude toward government. They want government to provide for them but they resent its control.

In Starr's view, the New Deal political culture never really caught on in California. "The New Deal didn't settle in here in the same way, and it was thrown off early." The New Deal culture is essentially collectivist and redistributive: use my tax money to help those less fortunate. At its best, it is Mario Cuomo's vision of a society based on sharing, family, compassion, and mutuality. In California, however, the kind of government people want and expect is the public-works culture that has its roots in the older progressive tradition. The essential idea is that government should provide universally available benefits and services like public education, water resources, and highways. It is a uniquely middle-class view of government: use my tax money in ways that will benefit me, along with everybody else. It is this public-works culture, Starr argued, that is reasserting itself ten years after Proposition 13.

Starr's theory helps to explain a prototypical Californian like George Deukmejian. Sal Russo, a political consultant who has worked for Deukmejian, said that "when he was elected, Deukmejian wanted to be known as the governor who rebuilt California." But he got himself boxed in on the issue of a tax increase. He cannot raise revenues because of his no tax-increase pledge. The Democratic legislature "prevents him from cutting things he might otherwise cut to put the money to better use." And the costs of rebuilding the state's infrastructure would be astronomical. "We started to cost it out," Russo said. "You couldn't figure out a way to pay for all of it." Deukmejian is in the classic middle-class squeeze between a commitment to low taxes and a commitment to public works.

Peter Kelly, the state Democratic Party chairman, put his finger on the key difference between California under Proposition 13 and the federal government under Ronald Reagan. "Here you had less money and you spent less," Kelly said. "Nationally, you had less money and you spent more." Sentiment in California has turned around to the extent that Democrats now cautiously endorse the need for higher taxes. In former governor Jerry Brown's view, "The tax implication of the plan must not be the salient message, but rather the vision has to be powerful enough that the tax is just a small piece of it, and not all that striking." Republicans now cautiously endorse the need for higher spending. Naylor, the Republican chairman, told me, "There is certainly a change of sentiment. But it isn't for throwing money at problems. It's for saying, 'Here's a specific need. We think money will solve this specific need.' It's not a search for more social programs. People see certain kinds of services that don't have enough money."

I asked everyone I spoke to whether it is now safe for Democrats to talk about more spending in California. Almost everyone gave the same answer: "Yes, but..." The conditions all amounted to more or less the same thing. "You have to talk about spending on things that benefit an awful lot of people," Richard Maullin said. "You cannot spend money to take care of small groups." Chip Nielsen, a Republican activist from San Francisco, said, "If you could take your tax check and pay for particular services, things you really get your return for, everyone would do it gladly." "Show people what they're getting," Tom Quinn said. "It had better be pretty specific. For instance, if I'm paying five cents more per gallon of gasoline, show me how it's going to take me half an hour instead of an hour to get to work five years from now." Clinton Reilly, a Democratic political consultant, put it this way: "I pay my taxes, so what are you going to do for me--not what are you going to do for someone else? Unless we can give people something back for their tax money, the Republicans are going to be stronger by saying, we're not going to take it in the first place."

Public works, like freeways, and public services, like fire fighting and crime prevention, are fine. They serve a specific, visible need and are universally available. "Social programs" are not fine. They are programs aimed at creating social change and benefiting particular groups. That is precisely the lesson that the national Democratic Party learned, or should have learned, from the Reagan era. The only social programs that are politically secure are Entitlements that benefit everybody, like Social Security and Medicare. It is much harder to sustain support for targeted programs, like welfare, urban mass transit, and student loans. The reverse is true of taxes. It is dangerous to propose a general tax increase. Instead, Democrats have to talk about user fees, designated revenues, and requiring employers to pay mandated benefits.

The message to national Democrats is, if you want to sell your program in California, keep spending as broad as possible and taxes as specific as possible.

There are many contradictions in California politics. Registered Democrats consistently outnumber registered Republicans; Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, the California congressional delegation, and almost all state offices below that of governor. But California has voted Republican in every presidential election since Harry Truman, with the exception of the Johnson landslide. Give the Republicans California's forty-seven electoral votes and you boost them a sixth of the way to an electoral-college majority. The national Democratic Party has a tendency to do just that. Democratic strategists often look at California and see that it is a state where the party can compete. California votes very much like the rest of the country. Over the past five presidential elections Republicans have won an average of 53 percent of the national vote and Democrats have averaged 42 percent. The averages for California are exactly the same. In 1960, when Kennedy beat Nixon by a national margin of 0.2 percent, Nixon carried California by 0.5 percent. Carter won the nation's popular vote by 2.1 percent in 1976; he lost California by 1.7 percent.

Seeing that California is winnable, Democrats then try to figure out what it would take to win it. The answer is, a lot of money and a lot of time. David Townsend, a Sacramento political consultant, estimated that a statewide campaign for governor can cost upwards of $10 million. Statewide campaigns in California are conducted almost entirely on television, and the state has several of the largest and most expensive television markets in the country. A presidential candidate, moreover, has to spend a lot of time traveling to and from what Richard Scammon, the election analyst, calls "the trans-desert republic." Having taken a long, hard look at the California numbers, Democrats usually decide to make a token effort there and concentrate instead on, say, Ohio. They rationalize their decision by pointing out that the Democratic nominee failed to win the California primary--as was the case in 1976, 1980, and 1984.

Tom Hayden says, "The national Democratic Party will not invest in California. They take money out as if it's a colony and put nothing back in. In August they'll be out here with their phony advance men promising us that they are going to go all the way in California. But privately we know that they will do that only to keep up appearances long enough to rip off more money. Then they'll yank the tent and call it quits in late September. They don't understand California, they don't like California, they don't want to even think of California as a Democratic state. It's like they're run by the mind of Woody Allen."

If the Democrats make no serious effort and the Republicans have a decent candidate, then the Republicans have an edge in California. Why, then, do Democrats do so well in state elections? Because Democrats in California often make an extraordinary effort and Republicans often put up terrible candidates. Senator Alan Cranston, for example, beat extremely weak right-wing opponents in 1968, 1974, and 1980. When the Republicans finally nominated a serious opponent, in 1986, Cranston ran a tough, well managed campaign that is widely acknowledged as one of the best in recent California history. And he barely won, with 50.8 percent of the vote. Almost every Republican I spoke to attributed the Democrats' advantage in the state legislature and Congress to the Democrats' brilliant--and controversial--reapportionment following the 1980 census.

Still, several factors have worked to the Republicans' advantage in recent years. One is the anti-tax movement and the trend toward fiscal conservatism. Another is the anti-crime backlash, which has led to setbacks for liberals on issues like gun control and the death penalty. George Deukmejian, more than any other politician, epitomizes the anti tax, law-and-order mentality of the California middle class. Clint Reilly told me, "The California electorate is primarily the upwardly mobile white middle class. What do you offer voters who feel they already have everything, except what Republicans offer, which is that they can have more than they've got? The Democratic Party has no message for the haves."

Reilly noted that the Democrats' lead in party registration has shifted from five-to-three to about five-to-four in recent years. According to Naylor, the Republican chairman, "Democratic registration is at its lowest since the Great Depression. Republican registration is at its highest since the early 1950s. We're closing the gap. The Democrats are now registering only marginally more voters than we are." I asked Naylor what he found were the best pools among which to recruit new Republican voters in California. He named two. "New residents are by far the best, particularly people who have bought houses in vast new residential developments. Number two is new citizens, especially Iranians, Vietnamese, and Central Americans." These new immigrant groups tend to be either strongly middle class in outlook, strongly anticommunist, or both. As Reilly observed about Asians, "They don't really look to government as the source of their economic well-being. They're very skeptical and fearful of government."

On the other hand, being the son of Greek immigrants may help Michael Dukakis to appeal to these voters. "Before the U.S. government's recent offer of amnesty to illegal aliens ended," Mark Shields wrote recently in The Washington Post,

"immigrants from 170 countries applied at the Los Angeles Immigration and Naturalization Service office. That's right, 170! California is the leading destination for the immigrants of the world. According to Rep. Bob Matsui, Sacramento Democrat and early Dukakis endorser, his candidate will do well because "we are a state of immigrants, not basically made up of Western Europeans, but people from southern Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America who will relate a lot better to Dukakis than to Bush. "

The Republicans have had one other advantage in California presidential races. A Californian has been on the ticket almost every time in the postwar era--Nixon five times and Reagan twice. Kelly, the Democratic chairman, called it "the cheapest insurance policy in America." If George Bush wants a little insurance, all he needs to do is put Deukmejian on the ticket as Vice President. The only problem is that Deukmejian has said over and over again that he is not interested in running for Vice President. If he won, he would have to turn the state over to the Democrats. As Ken Kahachigian, a former Reagan speechwriter and Deukmejian adviser, noted, "Right now the governor is the lone Republican state constitutional officer. He's got judicial appointments and two thousand patronage appointments. It would tear down whatever cachet he's built up with the party here."

"He'd have a lot of explaining to do," said the Republican political consultant Stu Spencer, pointing out that only by holding the governorship will the Republicans be able to veto another Democratic gerrymander after the 1990 census. "The Republicans would not forgive him," said Chip Nielsen, a Republican activist. "They'd say, 'You're the guy who turned California over to the Democrats. We didn't control reapportionment, and because of that, we ended up with twelve Democratic congressmen who shouldn't be there and a legislature still dominated by the Democrats.'" Nevertheless, Deukmejian is a Reagan loyalist, and if the President and the Vice President made the case to him personally that the preservation of the Reagan legacy is at stake, he might find it hard to refuse a spot on the ticket. After all, if he lost, he would still be governor, and if he won, he would be Vice President of the United States.

But how much would Deukmejian really help the ticket? He barely defeated a black Democratic candidate in 1982 and has never acquired much of a reputation outside the state--or much of a personal following inside the state. "He doesn't enjoy the campaign," Sal Russo said. "He would not be a happy campaigner. I don't think he'd do well on the stump." Moreover, the California insurance policy does not always pay off. Thomas Dewey put the governor of California, Earl Warren, on the ticket in 1948 and ended up losing the state narrowly to Harry Truman. And Earl Warren was one of the most popular governors in California history (he won both the Democratic and Republican primaries for governor in 1946, when cross-filing was allowed, and got re-elected with 92 percent of the vote).

If the election is as close as many observers expect, then it may all come down to which way California goes. And California could go either way. The Washington Post described George Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, as voicing "the bipartisan consensus" when he said this spring that "California will be critical." Recently the Post asked whether Michael Dukakis could put together a winning coalition without carrying a single southern or Rocky Mountain state. He could. By carrying the major northeastern, midwestern, and West Coast states, the Democrats could end up with 311 electoral votes, or forty-one more than a majority. But they could not do it without California's forty-seven. "California has got to be the Democrats' number-one target," said the Republican pollster Richard Wirthlin.

Bush's strength in California can be summarized in a single word: Reagan. The California Republican party is a shadow of Ronald Reagan, and Bush has been careful to stay in Reagan's shadow. But California voters are notoriously trendy. They got tired of Reagan once before, in 1974. After Reagan's two terms as governor, Californians decided to try something different. They elected Jerry Brown.

I asked the various Californians I spoke to what kind of message might work for the Democrats in California. Clint Reilly said, "The message must be for government to help business grow, to help the economy grow, to be a partner with business in creating jobs and growth. They also need a strong commonsense profile--tough on crime, for efficiency and economy in government." In other words, a very middle-class message. I asked Reilly how, with that kind of message, the Democrats could distinguish themselves from the Republicans. "On the quality-of-life issues, like the environment and education," he replied, "areas where government has to be active." Kelly, the Democratic chairman, essentially agreed. "There are no great ideological differences that the public perceives between the parties at the moment," he said. "There will probably not be an ideological difference over the deficit. It's not going to be the liberal plan versus the conservative plan. It's going to be one person's idea over another's." Therefore, he concluded, the election will be decided by "the appearance of competence and the appearance of leadership."

In that case, Michael Dukakis should make a very nice appearance. Competence is his issue, and his record in Massachusetts is one of efficiency, economy, and partnership between government and business. Indeed, the California Republicans I spoke to saw Dukakis as the most formidable potential Democratic nominee. In a May Los Angeles Ames poll Dukakis was running 17 points ahead of Bush. "I think Dukakis probably knows how to communicate with California voters," Ken Kahachigian said. "There would be a big-state affinity with his management of Massachusetts. He is perceived as a good manager." Larry Thomas, a former press secretary to Vice President Bush, described Dukakis as "a good communicator with a conservative Democratic message. He's got something he can point to and show that it worked. He's not just another fellow from the legislative branch."

Bob Naylor, the Republican state chairman, went even further in praising Dukakis. He told me, "Dukakis has some of the same appeal as Deukmejian. With his record, I think, he would be able to tap into almost all the themes that Deukmejian has tapped into in this state." "What themes?" I asked. "He got his state's economy moving again," Naylor said. "He carried out stringent tax-cutting measures. He also made the state live within its means. He represents high tech and economic growth. Massachusetts is the flagship economy for the East Coast, as California is for the West Coast." "One more thing," he added, tying the two Dukes together: "in California we're used to ethnics."


The real battleground of American Politics is not a state. It is a constituency--the white middle class. The white middle class is such a vast and diffuse constituency that it is easier to characterize it by what it is not than by what it is. It is not rich and it is not poor. Nor is it conservative or liberal in any consistent way. Indeed, it is not ideological at all, preferring to see issues in practical rather than moralistic terms. White middle-class voters are capable of supporting a moderate Republican like Governor Thompson, of Illinois, a conservative Republican like Governor Deukmejian, of California, a moderate Democrat like Senator Bentsen, of Texas, and a liberal Democrat like Governor Cuomo, of New York. All these politicians succeed because they connect with the needs and interests of white middle-class voters. The problem facing any presidential candidate is that he has to connect with white middle-class voters in all the states simultaneously. He has to be a Thompson in Illinois, a Deukmejian in California, a Bentsen in Texas, and a Cuomo in New York.

Two broad themes seem to characterize the politics of the white middle class. One is pragmatism, the characteristically American notion that whatever works must be right. Middle-class voters accepted the enormous expansion of federal power under the New Deal because it was perceived to work. Big government brought relief to millions of Americans and helped bring the country out of the Great Depression--so long live big government! Most middle-class voters have accepted the Reagan program in the 1980s because it, too, has seemed to work. The popular view is that Reagan's anti-government policies helped bring the country out of the Great Inflation of the 1970s and produced more than five years of sustained economic recovery--so down with big government!

The second theme of middle-class politics is populism. Not populism of the left or populism of the right but a generalized resentment of elites and establishments. It was the anti-Washington issue that helped elect the past two Presidents of the United States, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Both political parties have become more ideological and less populist over the past twenty-five years. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern have finally won. Their movements took control of the parties away from the old bosses--the Democratic Party regulars, the Republican eastern establishment--and turned it over to "the people," which is to say, primary voters and caucus participants. But most people do not participate in primaries and caucuses. Those who do tend to be upper-middle-class activists with an ideological agenda. As a result, liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats have become virtually extinct. More to the point, middle-class voters no longer feel entirely comfortable in either party; the Democrats are too liberal and the Republicans too conservative. In every state I visited, politicians talked about how partisanship has been declining since the 1960s. There are fewer and fewer reliable Republican and Democratic voters. The white middle class has become a swing vote.

The big story of the past twenty-five years has been the Democratic Party's loss of the white middle-class vote. Everett Ladd, a political scientist, noticed it in the early 1970s, when he wrote about "the inversion of the New Deal class order" "In the party system which FDR built, the top had been decisively more Republican than the bottom," he wrote. By the early 1970s he found evidence that "in many...instances, groups at the top are now more Democratic than those at the bottom." Indeed, he identified a new pattern, "with the top more Democratic than the middle but the middle less Democratic than the bottom." The Democrats have been losing northern white ethnics and southern conservatives. They are becoming a top-down coalition of elite professionals and the dependent poor. In the 1988 presidential primaries the Democratic Party seemed to be reduced to two core constituencies-- blacks and white liberals. James A. Barnes, of National Journal, has reported a sharp decline in the participation of lower-income voters, particularly lower-income white voters, in this year's Democratic primaries. In Chicago, for instance, Jesse Jackson's 1988 vote was 23 percent higher than his 1984 vote. But the vote for the other active Democratic candidates this year was down 39 percent from the total of votes cast for Gary Hart and Walter Mondale in 1984. The decline was especially severe, Barnes reports, in the city's ethnic white working class sections. Without those voters the Democrats will not have a majority coalition in November.

If the Democrats are under pressure because they have been losing votes, the Republicans have had problems because they have been gaining votes. Old-line Republicans have had difficulty accepting some of the new groups that have been moving into their party--urban populists, racists, and religious fundamentalists. "The deal is, we will endorse your positions and take your votes, but please don't try to challenge us for control of our party," Republican leaders seem to be saying. Blacks didn't accept that deal from the Democratic Party, and religious fundamentalists are not likely to accept it from the Republican Party. The evidence from Illinois, New York, Texas, and California suggests that the Republican Party has had trouble establishing roots in the electorate. Big Republican gains in presidential voting have not translated into a party base for state and local elections, often because the party does not have a deep pool of talent to draw from in recruiting candidates. White middle-class voters may be leaving the Democratic Party and voting Republican, but most of them have not become Republican partisans.

In order to compete for the white middle-class vote, the parties must avoid seeming too ideological. In Illinois and New York the Democratic Party has to figure out some way to accommodate rising black political aspirations without becoming the black party. Similarly, Republicans have to absorb the white ethnic vote without becoming the racist party. Neither black power nor racism sells to the white middle class. In Texas the Republicans are under pressure to be more flexible in their view of government; otherwise they will violate the commonsense notion that government has a role to play in restoring the state's economy. In California, given the state's healthy economy, it is the Democrats who must adapt. They have to accept the Proposition 13 consensus and prove to suspicious middle-class voters that their taxing and spending policies are reasonable and appropriate. The Democratic Party's core ideological position is that the role of government is to protect people. The core Republican position is that government interferes with people. Ask white middle-class voters which position they agree with, and they are likely to say, "Both."

The Democrats got into trouble in the 1960s and early 1970s as a result of racial conflict and the Vietnam War. Racists could not remain in a party led by Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and foreign-policy conservatives could not accept the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. The most devastating blow to the Democrats came in the late 1970s, however, when Jimmy Carter failed to manage the most serious economic crisis since the Depression. The Democratic Party lost credibility on the one issue that had held it together for fifty years, even when race and Vietnam had threatened to tear it apart--namely, the commitment to protect people against economic adversity. The good news for Democrats this year is that the divisive issues are mostly in the past. Even with the Jackson campaign, social- and foreign-policy tensions are far less acute than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, the polls show renewed support for government activism.

So the Democrats have a real opportunity--if they don't run an ideological campaign that frightens the middle class. Most voters do not want to relive the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, and most will not vote for a party whose platform is "We told you so." In fact, the hot theme of the 1988 campaign so far has nothing to do with ideology. It is good management, which is one thing the voters are not getting from President Reagan. Bush and Dukakis are selling themselves as competent, experienced professionals. Bush is running on his resume. Dukakis is running on his record. There is not a vision between them. After eight years of Reagan, the voters seem to be saying, "We may have had enough vision for a while. Let's get a President who can make things work." After all, if you want to solve problems like the budget deficit and the trade imbalance, you don't need a visionary. You need a manager.


According to the polls, Dukakis has a good chance of beating Bush. Nevertheless, he got into trouble in the Democratic primaries. Democrats criticized him because he was dull and bland and didn't have enough of a message. But those very qualities may make him a strong Democratic candidate in November. He can be sold as a manager, not as a liberal. The rule is, the voters want one kind of candidate in a primary and another kind of candidate in a general election. Primary voters are looking for cheap thrills. General-election voters want security. Dukakis is not such a great date, you might say, but he'd make a fine husband.

What the voters seem to want in 1988 is change, but not too much change. They want the new President to deal with Reagan's mistakes. But they do not want to endanger the two things Reagan is credited with having achieved: lower inflation and a greater sense of military security. The Democrats cannot do anything that threatens to put those achievements at risk. To Jackson voters and liberal activists, Dukakis is a timid choice. Instead of posing a direct ideological challenge to everything Reagan stands for, Dukakis promises only to make government work better In Jesse Jackson's words, "Dukakis will manage the damage." That is called "me too" politics, and activists don't like it. On the Republican side, many conservatives are critical of Bush for the same reason--"He's bland, he's dull, he isn't saying anything." But conservatives, like liberals, get into trouble when they say too much.

What both parties have to offer is a safe alternative for voters who are unhappy with the status quo. Dwight Eisenhower was a safe alternative in 1952. Richard Nixon was believed to be safe in 1968, especially since everywhere Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace went that year, riots broke out. John F. Kennedy was not exactly a safe candidate in 1960: he was a forty-three-year-old Roman Catholic. Nor was Jimmy Carter a safe nominee in 1976: he was a born-again politician from the Deep South with no experience in national politics. But neither Kennedy nor Carter was an ideologue, and they ran cautious, moderate campaigns.

Both Dukakis and Bush are fairly safe candidates. In fact, they have similar strengths. Both are pragmatists. As a result, they are distrusted by ideological activists in their respective parties. But neither is regarded as dangerous or divisive. They also share a weakness. Neither Bush nor Dukakis has a populist bone in his body. Because Bush was born to wealth and privilege, he has a serious "silver spoon" problem. Voters can forgive that shortcoming in Democrats (FDR, JFK), but it is always a problem for Republicans. Dukakis is a suburban reformer, a man who believes in good government and high moral purpose. He is totally committed to process. He will use government to manage economic growth, and he will use Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government to manage the government. Not for him the passionate advocacy politics of Hubert Humphrey or Walter Mondale.

The voters face a choice this year between two establishment candidates, both "safe," both pragmatic. One proposes to be chairman of the board, the other sees himself as chief executive officer. What kind of contest is this going to be? What the voters want is a Big Ten game. Instead, the 1988 election is shaping up as Harvard versus Yale.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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