Can Dukakis Avoid A Dewey-like Defeat?

Posted: September 06, 1988

Forget all that stuff about Kennebunkport squire George Bush being the latter-day equivalent of Harry Truman, the feisty Missouri populist who kicked and clawed his way to victory in the 1948 presidential election from 15 points behind. The real analogy - despite the recent first rebutting signs of fire, animation and even vitriol - may lie in the other side of the 1948 equation. That is the potentially fatal comparison developing between two bland managerial technocrats: New York Republican Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory back in 1948, and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who has spent much of late July and August plodding in Dewey's hapless footsteps.

The bad news for the Democrats is that the Dukakis-Dewey parallels now seem so eerie. Their good news, though, is that they got the message in late August, with nine weeks until Election Day, while the Dewey camp didn't see warning poll evidence until mid-October. And a second plus for the Democrats is that Bush's poll comeback is yesterday's headline rather than today's.

Dukakis' decline occurred from late July, when he was about 15 points ahead, through roughly Aug. 20, immediately following Bush's GOP convention speech. At that time, polls had Bush 5 to 9 points ahead. But by last week, surveys showed the Bush edge fading back to a dead heat. So the Massachusetts governor may still have time to switch to a winning script.

Turning back to 1948, however, the one or two valid parallels between Bush and Truman - particularly their overshadowing as vice presidents serving such mythic figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan - seem more misleading than revealing.

Stylistically and temperamentally, the blueblooded Bush is to the hot- blooded Truman as a pedigreed English setter is to a coon dawg. No, the key to what's left of this race is the surprisingly long list of stylistic and even temperamental parallels between 1948 loser Dewey and 1988 wobbler Dukakis. Nothing is more critical to Dukakis than surmounting them.

To begin with, the situations of 40 years ago and today have a lot in common. One party - in 1948 the Democrats, now the Republicans - had essentially dominated the presidency for two decades, and voters were starting to look for change. And in both cases, the new candidates of the party in power were seen as second-rate figures - weak copies, respectively, of the late Roosevelt and the about-to-retire Reagan. As a result, midyear polls in each instance showed big margins for out-party nominees Dewey and Dukakis.

And now the truly fascinating Dewey-Dukakis similarities come into play: shared gubernatorial mind-sets and parochialisms; Northeastern state capital headquarters, staffs and biases; a preference for managerialism over beliefs and ideology; discomfort with populism and emotion, and prim, even cold, personalities.

Chroniclers of the 1948 campaign have noted how Dewey drew criticism for urging a special session of Congress to deal with two issues of particular interest to New York. This year, the man from Massachusetts has been showing similar parochialisms - trotting out minor-league home-state business- government partnership achievements and sometimes looking more like a candidate for mayor of Worcester than president of the United States.

The geography is bad, too. Dewey was hurt and Dukakis is currently jeopardized by a presidential campaign holed up in a peripheral state capital - then Albany, now Boston - and managed by a parochial staff inadequately tutored in national issues, history and combat.

Dewey prided himself on organization, rationality and sound management. Columnist Dorothy Thompson joked that the New York governor "seems to think he is applying for an office manager's job."

Dukakis' whole stuffy demeanor, his Massachusetts piddle and his proclamation in his acceptance speech that the 1988 election is about competence rather than ideology bespeak a similar mind-set. The trouble is, it's not a mind-set that voters particularly want in their president.

In Dukakis' case, as in Dewey's, managerialism has frequently gone hand in hand with a preference for blandness and blurring of controversial issues. Author Jules Abels, in his 1948 narrative Out of the Jaws of Victory, has described how Dewey actually made a deliberate decision - reinforced by his large summer poll lead - to keep his speeches bland and general. "Unity" was a favorite theme. He was afraid to pose conservative issues or criticize the New Deal because of his belief that it would interfere with getting the ex- Roosevelt votes he needed.

The Dukakis campaign hasn't been that inept, to be sure. But the Massachusetts governor has been (again like Dewey) somewhat reluctant to lower

himself to name-calling. And Dukakis, Dewey-like in his concern for moderates who previously supported the other party, has also been disinclined to slash hard at the Reagan GOP's emerging populist Achilles heels - the administration's bias towards upper-bracket America and the vulnerable silver- spoon sociology of the Bush-Dan Quayle ticket.

According to polls, 55 percent to 65 percent of Americans are worried about both continuing reliability and growing maldistribution of U.S. prosperity. If those fears can't be harnessed, Dukakis and the Democrats won't win.

Out-parties looking to get back in the White House by breaking the other side's two-decade hold don't succeed with white-bread speeches, managerial promises or twaddle about "Massachusetts miracles."

Given the public's desire for change, the 1988 election has been Dukakis' to lose, just as the 1948 race was Dewey's to lose. Since late July, however, that's exactly what Dukakis has been doing - taking a leaf out of Dewey's strategy book.

The irony is that even Dewey, in the end, understood where he went wrong, telling chronicler Abels, "The people want a blood-and-thunder campaign on the national level." The big question of 1988 is whether Thomas E. Dukakis can profit from the lessons of 1948 without continuing to re-enact them.

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