The Errant Duke

POLITICS

ON THE NIGHT of November 5, 1974, I was staked out in my room in Winthrop House equipped with a rather large supply of beer and cigars and surrounded by a group of friends--mostly male--watching television. It may be remembered that November 5 was a Tuesday night, election night. We had been waiting for days, some of us for years, for what was about to happen. The media wizards were unanimous in their predictions of a New New Deal, a Democratic sweep that would destroy the Republican party, repudiate its principles, and finally bring justice to its leaders. Their predictions, of course, suggested the ominous possibility precisely the opposite taking place, but if the handwriting were ever on the wall, this seemed like the night.

Cronkite was, of course, at his professional best, keeping a stiff upper lip throughout as the returns began to roll in. But even from the beginning, the vote was solidly democratic--the media heavies. Democratic regulars, and liberal-independent types were delerious...or, if not delerious, at least feeling a little vindicated. By the next morning it was officials; the Democratic party, now apparently veto-proof, would finally bring sweetness and light.

Things, however, are not always what they seem. This new army of liberal democrats took office (except for the senator from New Hampshire, who remains to be seated) more than six mouths ago, but nothing much has happened. There has been precious little progress made against racism, military lunacy, social injustice, perennial pollution, executive government, and sexism; and only a false veneer of success on the newly-important economic front. And no one knows what to do about any one of them. Ford smiles a lot and vetoes a lot, but he is not now, and never will be capable of handling an economic crisis with anything like the adroitness of a Franklin Roosevelt. Likewise, the Democratic majority, though armed with a "mandate" of its own, doesn't even seem to know how often the president is wrong.

Not that anyone really expected them to. But what is particularly disappointing about this new wave is that senators, representatives, and governors, faced with the most serious economic problems American capitalism has encountered in more than forty years, have been moving from their liberalism back to the center rather than to the left. This pattern holds true most particularly and most depressingly in Massachusetts, this bastion of liberalism and hotbed of radicalism. In short, Mike Duke Dukakis has surprised everybody.

YOU MAY think "So what?" But the government has this habit of going to work every day, and things are happening. Frank Sargent, DuKakis' liberal Republican predecessor, left the incoming administration saddled with a deficit of roughly $760 million in a budget of $3.3 billion. The state of Massachusetts is in almost as bad a situation as New York City--worse in terms of options for the future--so if there were ever an opportunity and a ready-made rationale for change, you would think this was it. Many expected just that, Dukakis, who distinguished himself as a somewhat cool and analytical state representative in a Legislature of born actors, had been at least a consistent supporter of liberal, sometime radical, programs. His major legislative coup was the passage of no-fault automobile insurance. The plan was rational and elegantly simple, and though its social consequences cut lawyers most deeply, he was applauded. He was also something of an intellectual in a Legislature where neither the Irish nor the Italians can spell quantification. He is also Greek.

So a slim margin of Massachusetts voters felt sure that, even though Frank Sargent was a nice guy, a sharp pol, and a liberal's liberal and even though Dukakis has all the charisma of a garden slug, was a non-politician, and was relatively unknown-they were getting something different and better.

Things, however, are not always what they seem. In fact, Dukakis has turned out to be very much like Frank Sargent, only worse, Sure he takes the subway to work instead of a limousine, eats sand-wiches in the office instead of big banquets, and hired a bright young staff. And he made a big splash on the surface with these gestures when he first took over. But, to date, he has not acted any differently than Sargent would have when faced with matters of substance. In fact, he has often goofed in ways Sargent never would have thought of. His basic problem, aside from a lack of imagination and courage, is that like many other liberal suburban pols, he does not understand politics very well. He has, for instance, put a stop to the nonsense of issuing low registration number plates to friends of the administrators, a long and revered practice in Massachusetts. He said the practice was silly, imperial, and a waste of his time. He was, of course, right. But Sargent never would have done the same thing because he knew that every one of those plates meant a favor he could count on later. Dukakis doesn't understand things like that.

The biggest issue he has had to face so far, though, is the state's financial crisis. The present trauma is the result of hidden deficits during the Sargent years, the depressing effect of Massachusetts unemployment on the tax base, and the state's commitment to high-cost social service programs. The problem is one he shares with almost every other governor in the U.S. But faced with this first major test, he has decided to back-pedal rather than lead. And his actions during the last six months reveal a lot about the politics of fiscal crisis.

In a time of economic depression, preparing a budget is the single most important issue any executive faces. The budget tells people not only what the administration's priorities are but--in hard times--who will suffer. Dukakis' biggest fault in approaching the budget is his determination to balance it as soon as he can. But balancing budgets is for flush times. Now, he is set on a path of cutbacks (much like that of a recent president) and those cutbacks (much like those of this same president) are digging into human service programs that are needed most now. His biggest cuts are aimed at, of all things, welfare. The absolutely maddening result of this kind of politics is that people can have public assistance--like loans from a bank--only when they don't need it. What he should be doing, of course, is floating the biggest deficit he can possibly get away with and using this crisis to finally force through the Legislature a graduated income tax. Instead, he is cutting spending and raising taxes on the same people who always pay them.

But all is not lost. Dukakis's budget must be approved by the Legislature. The governor's proposals are now sitting in the House Ways & Means Committee, which will hold hearings on each section of the budget for the rest of this week and probably for several weeks to come. And what is being said is that the proposed cuts are too big and that they will hurt the wrong people. After that, the full House and Senate must work out their amendments and approve a budget, which, in turn, the Governor must approve. The basic mechanics of budget-setting in hard times runs like this: the Governor, because of his strategic position, can propose anything he wants and will cut as much as he dares, thus forcing the Legislature to restore to the budget the essentials that the Governor and the Legislature both know have to go in. The advantage for the Governor is that when taxes go up, the Legislature looks like the big spender, not the governor.

But Dukakis may just get what's coming to him this time. Because the voters are not as dumb as they look. They are beginning to sec how that shell game works, and they know that Dukakis, rather than ending the game, is turning out to be just another inept player.