To be quite specific, candidates rarely are. Policy details can boomerang on hopefuls
George Bush has labeled Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis the ``stealth candidate'' for being vague on the issues. Mr. Dukakis, although with not so catchy a phrase, has essentially leveled the same charge at Mr. Bush. But political analysts say the candidates are actually doing their best to avoid the details of policy, because details tend to generate trouble.
``This is the game of the 50 million,'' explains veteran political analyst Richard Scammon. ``You've got to get 50 million people to vote for you come November. You cannot get 50 million Americans to vote for you on a concrete, specific, 28-[point] program.
``You are necessitously in the ambivalent middle,'' Mr. Scammon says, ``simply because that's where the people are.''
Now that voters are paying more attention to the campaign, it would seem to be a good opportunity for the candidates to get more specific, and to broaden the policy agenda. Neither campaign plans to make many major changes in the political script, however, as the political season moves into its final phase.
The basic strategy for the Dukakis campaign is to hammer away at the same themes the Massachusetts governor has been using since he announced his candidacy.
``He will continue to stick to the knitting,'' says Dukakis aide Tom Herman.
Paul Jensen, an adviser to the Dukakis campaign, agrees. ``I don't think the general thrust of the Dukakis campaign is going to change at all,'' he says. Mr. Jensen does say, however, that ``as the election evolves there will be opportunities to make specific commitments.''
What issues can voters expect to hear from the Dukakis camp?
``We will continue to talk about the issues the governor has been talking about since he announced his run for the presidency,'' Mr. Herman says. The ``knitting,'' as he refers to it, ``focuses on the economic future of this country, it focuses on creating good jobs at good wages ... a real war on drugs ... ensuring that quality health-care is available to every one ... [and that] a home of your own is available to everyone.''
The Bush campaign has been trying to make an issue out of the Democratic platform, which was kept brief by design. The Democrats realize that Scammon's ``ambivalent middle'' are the swing voters who will determine the outcome of the election. As a result, the eight-page Democratic platform is an attempt to find an acceptable middle ground among the often divergent views within the party - views that don't always sit well with the more conservative Reagan Democrats.
Zeroing in on the absence of specific proposals in the Democratic platform, Bush told the drafters of the 104-page GOP platform:
``While [Dukakis] can't decide about the stealth bomber, he favors instead stealth policies - they can be neither seen nor heard. His campaign jets from place to place, but no issues show up on the radar screen.''
The label angers Dukakis's staff, who feel they have been a lot more specific on many issues than the vice-president.
``George Bush has not been paying attention to the [more than] 40 issue papers this campaign has put out, or to the over 100 speeches we have made,'' says Herman, Dukakis's senior deputy for issues. ``Basically it is a campaign ploy, a smoke screen in an attempt to hide the true facts.''
Dukakis has in fact outlined his positions on many issues through his speeches and issue papers, but the Bush forces will continue to focus on the differences in the two party platforms.
``George Bush has been infinitely more specific,'' says Jim Pinkerton, Bush's director of research. ``Compare the platforms.''
Voters will have to watch very closely to catch new policy advances by both parties, since such pronouncements have to compete with the less substantive but more colorful political rhetoric that often catches the headlines.
Dukakis is giving a speech today that will further outline his views on the international aspects of how he would fight the drug war. Next week he will focus on education.