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An Icy Duke Edges Out Bush in a Taut Debate

Behind in the polls, Dukakis attacks on drugs, the deficits, Iran and Quayle

[TIME for October 3, 1988]

TIME October 3, 1988

The pendulum swung last Sunday night, as it may several times again before the election. Michael Dukakis, whose campaign had been moribund since the Democratic Convention, reasserted his voice at the first of two 90-minute showdowns -- and while his overconfident debater's style may be grating, he consistently displayed his mastery of both the forensic arts and substance. George Bush, while certainly the warmer and more user-friendly of the two, appeared at the same time to be hesitant, disconnected and too often on the defensive. For Dukakis, the Wake Forest wordfest may have been the moment he badly needed. Given his limited emotional range and his earnest, smartest-boy-in-the-class presentation, his command of the debate was his strongest performance since the Atlanta Convention. If the exchange, watched by 100 million viewers, does not help him rebound in the polls, his political outlook is cloudy, since he is unlikely to surpass this performance again. For Bush, with a well-orchestrated campaign and far less to lose, it may be enough that he survived without permanent damage. If the Vice President made no new converts, he also did little to undermine the attitudes of those who already support him.

One reason with the fascination with this rather strange televised encounter is the scripted and stage-managed nature of the race thus far. On the advice of their handlers, the two candidates have largely avoided situations that carried the slightest semblance of spontaneity. During the days preceding the debate, the handlers coached their men assiduously to ensure that no unscripted statement, answer or even gesture would occur in front of television viewers. Nevertheless, there is a limit to what campaign managers can control, and the debate was a rare chance for the public to see Bush and Dukakis react entirely on their own.

From the opening seconds of the debate, Bush pursued his strategy of making the campaign an ideological contest. Answering the first question, which was on drugs, he launched into an attack on permissiveness: "I think we've seen a deterioration of values. We've condoned those things we should have condemned."

From there the battle was joined in a reprise of many of the social issues that have provided an emotional subtext of American politics for the past 20 years. The fiercest conflict emerged over abortion. While Bush seemed discomfited by a question about what punishment would be appropriate if abortions, as he urged, were made illegal. Dukakis immediately jumped on the issue to declare, "I think that what the Vice President is saying is that he is prepared to brand a woman a criminal for making this decision." The now shopworn controversies over the Pledge of Allegiance and Dukakis' membership in the American Civil Liberties Union also made their obligatory appearances as Bush charged that his opponent is "out of the mainstream... Do we want this country to go that far left?"

Dukakis used the A.C.L.U. dispute and references to the pledge to score the emotional high point of the debate. Bush had declared that he was not questioning his opponent's patriotism. "Of course, the Vice President is questioning my patriotism," said the Democratic nominee. "I don't think there's any question about that, and I resent it. I resent it. My parents came to this country as immigrants. They taught me this was the greatest country in the world. I'm in public service because I love this country. I believe in it, and nobody's going to question my patriotism."

The cleavages were equally apparent an economic issues--none more clear-cut than on the question of how to provide for the millions of Americans without health insurance. Where Dukakis pointed to his recently unveiled program that would require that all private businesses provide coverage for their workers, he totally ignored Bush's claims that this approach might have hidden costs of up to $35 billion or $40 billion. Yet Bush, for all his concerns about a "kinder, gentler nation," seemed hamstrung in posing a credible alternative. At one point the Vice President said somewhat helplessly, "It's a terrible problem, but I don't want to mandate it."

On the top campaign issue, the nation's huge budget deficit, the questioners were unable to pin the candidates down on just how they can reduce it and still acquire the military weapons and social programs they support. Dukakis repeated his unpersuasive solution of tougher tax enforcement. He stressed welfare reforms that would put more poor people to work as a way to cut spending and simultaneously bring in more tax revenue. Bush argued that "we've got to get the Democrats' Congress under control" to hold down spending.

The argument led naturally to a clash over tax policy. Bush stoutly defended his proposal to cut the capital-gains tax rate from its current 28% to 15%. Dukakis jumped on this notion as a "cut for the wealthiest 1%" of Americans. But a reference by Dukakis to the need to bring interest rates down gave Bush an easy shot at the 21.5% that existed at one point under President Carter.

One of the main thrusts of Bush's attacks on his foe was to portray him as one of the "big-spending liberals" who see Government as the main solution to social problems. Bush stressed the need for voluntary action by individuals and private organizations, for example, to improve life in urban ghettos. He several times praised the "thousand points of light" in helping to solve the plight of poor children whose lives, he has said, "haunted him." Dukakis chided Bush for being vague. "Thousand points of light? I don't know what that means." The audience chuckled at the sarcasm. Bush explained that he referred to private organizations such as schools and charities.

Bush scored on a sharp question aimed at Dukakis being considered "passionless, technocratic, the smartest clerk in the world." The Governor cited issues on which he said he cared deeply, including children who can't afford to go to college, people without medical insurance, civil rights and affirmative action. He conceded that "I may be a little calmer than some" about such matters because I seek consensus." Bush adroitly declared that "I salute him for his passion," but insisted that it was misdirected at causes favored by "far-out liberals."

Foreign affairs got relatively short shrift, and neither debater broke new ground. Dukakis, as expected, assailed Bush sharply for the Administration's dealings with Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and for its "tragic" sales of arms to Iran. Bush, he said, had not been "out of the loop." as the Vice President had contended, but had attended "meeting after meeting after meeting" at which the arms sales were discussed and approved. His own position, said Dukakis, was that "there can be no concessions under any circumstances" to terrorists, however "agonizing" it might be to let American citizens remain in captivity.

The Vice President sharply attacked Dukakis for advocating a nuclear freeze in 1982. "Because we didn't listen," he said, the U.S. has achieved the first agreement reducing nuclear arms, which a freeze would have precluded. Dukakis responded that back in 1982, Bush waffled somewhat on the freeze and insisted it should not be a partisan issue. Bush also attacked Dukakis for wanting "unilaterally" to do away with such weapons as the MX and Midgetman missiles. "When we are negotiating with the Soviet Union, I'm not going to give away a couple of aces" beforehand, he asserted. Dukakis retorted that Bush was refusing to make the hard choices among different types of military spending that the nation's budget stringencies mandate. For example, he said, the MX missile system mounted on railroad cars was a weapon "we don't need and can't afford," and the Administration was planning to spend "billions" on a Star Wars system that few if any reputable scientists think can work.

Yet individual lines and specific issues could not convey answers to the deeper, almost psychological question that the American voters now face: Which contender seemed more likely to be a figure of comfort in the White House? Despite the frequent critiques of his somber style, Dukakis seldom smiled during the debate, and when he did the display of teeth seemed forced. For his part, Bush seemed almost overbriefed, as he sometimes verged on incoherence in his efforts to jam as many debating points as possible in a two-minute answer.

One thing the debate made abundantly clear is that the negative tone of campaigning is unlikely to let up until the election. In the battle of testy one-liners, Dukakis was the initial and consistent aggressor from the moment he threw down the gauntlet by saying, "If Bush keeps it up, he's going to be the Joe Isuzu of American politics." While Bush immediately countered that one of Dukakis' answers was "as clear as Boston Harbor," he generally avoided such frontal attacks, although he continued his indirect assault on Dukakis over emotionally charged values issues.

The impact of the Great Debate will depend on the way public perceptions of the two performances shape up over the rest of the week. For the voters, the challenge will be to avoid being swayed by the handiwork of the handlers and to focus instead on the substance of what the two men said and the impressions they were able to convey.

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