Putting Style Before Substance

"I T'S morning in America"--that's what Ronald Reagan told the voters in 1984, while his opponent Walter Mondale was busy asking his Democratic rivals "Where's the beef?" No wonder Reagan won: He had Ben Franklin and 200 years of early birds backing his re-election bid when all Mondale had was the Wendy's franchise behind him.

Political cliches, as a recent article in The New York Times by E.J. Dionne notes, have been the symbolism--and sometimes--the substance of political campaigns in the U.S. since the buck stopped with Harry S. Truman and the country went all the way with LBJ.

This year's presidential campaign has failed to excite the pundits and the voters precisely because the two protagonists, Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Vice President George Bush, have yet to coin the phrases that will set the tone for their respective campaigns.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson was the sole possessor of oratorical flame in this year's contest, and his speech at the Democratic Convention should be a lesson to the two nominees in the general election. Avoid the specific, concentrate on the personal and the sweeping.

In Atlanta, Jackson told the audience "I am somebody." He talked about his grandmother, his childhood, his goals. But in purely election-year terms, the speech earned a place in history for the variety and attractiveness of its metaphors. America is a great patchwork quilt. Jackson and Dukakis, anchored separately but coming together in the same harbor--going out to challenge the big ships in the ocean.


Jackson knew, as Reagan and many other successful politicians before him did, that it is symbolism which must come first in election-year speech making. And what Dukakis and Bush have not yet learned is that position papers and briefing books won't ignite the voters come November. It's all in the cliches--and neither candidate has hit on an appropriate one to carry him to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

T AKE Dukakis, for example. The governor talks about the Massachusetts Miracle, his supporters chant "Duke, Duke, Duke," pundits mention the Greek heritage of passion that lurks--somewhere, maybe--in him. But none of this disguises the fact that Dukakis' image is BORING, that he is thought to be the ultimate technocrat, or that his speaking style is often wooden.

The voters would be ashamed to cast their ballot for someone running on a platform of competence. That's not what presidential elections are about--they're about what Bush once called "that vision thing." Vision as in "it's morning in America," as in the New Frontier, the New Deal, the Great Society.

The nuts and bolts of governing aren't of interest to the electorate. Most of them don't know who the contras are, and even fewer care whether Congress votes to support them. Statistics show that most often the candidate who presents the most optimistic speech at his party's convention wins in November. The lesson is clear if disheartening: Smile a lot and hire good speechwriters.

Dukakis could take his cue from the Massachusetts state advertising campaign, and attempt to convince the voters that he can "make the spirit of Massachusetts fit the spirit of America." Bush could remind the electorate that he is the living heir to the Reagan Revolution, and that the Republican reign will live on.

But never, ever should either candidate get so foolish as to start talking about raising taxes or the complexities of Middle East peace negotiations. He might get caught in the Walter Mondale trap of substance over style.

Then again, neither Bush nor Dukakis has been too caught up in substantive campaigning. They have both played the game of political generalities and vague pronouncements that form the large part of campaigns today. Dukakis insists on the need for jobs and public-private partnerships, but refuses to provide any numbers to back up his ideas. And Bush, too, falls into the trap of talking without number signs--it makes it that much easier to support everything without promising much.

But if they aren't going to concentrate on substance, the two candidates could at least try to master the basics of style.

The early bird in presidential campaigns catches the worm. So Dukakis and Bush should remember: All's fair in love and war and to the victor goes the spoils.